Pharmaceuticals have been a booming sector in India for a while now. There is an upward trajectory and high demand for specific drugs. On the flip side, pharmaceutical products are a lucrative target for counterfeiters. The WHO (World Health Organization) reports say that one in every ten medical products sold in India is fake or substandard. The Union Health Ministry has been fighting a tough battle with counterfeit in the pharma sector. The regulations have strengthened, and vigilance increased. But the advent of e-pharmacies can add to the challenge.
Covid 19 and the online shopping trend
The e-pharmacy sector stands 30 billion dollars strong. It is growing in double digits every year. It will touch 2.7 billion in India by 2023, while it currently stands at 360 million dollars. Major players like Netmeds, Pharmeasy, Myrameds, 1mg dominate the e-pharmacy segment. Yet, we must note that about 282 e-pharmacies operate in India. Thus, regulating and ensuring customer data security is challenging. Fuelling the sunshine sector is the growing dependency of people on e-commerce. The COVID 19 pandemic has brought in restrictions on movement. Lock-downs have encouraged many people to opt for online shopping.
E-pharmacies offer easy and cashless doorstep delivery. E-pharmacies have helped increase the reach of essential medicines during the pandemic. But the sector has also been one of the primary beneficiaries of the pandemic. Due to a lower risk of contagion, online pharmacies saw a sharp increase in users. Multinationals and e-commerce giants are now looking at investing in online pharmacies. Amazon is looking to invest 100 million dollars in the Apollo Pharmacy chain. Amazon has also started a prescription drug delivery service in Bengaluru in India. At the beginning of 2020, Reliance Retail had acquired a majority stake in Netmeds. With investments pouring in, online pharmacies can now offer customers many discounts and coupons. Also, people are now looking for immunity boosters, which do not need prescriptions. So, there has never been a better time for e-pharmacies.
Factors contributing to the rise in fake medicines sold through e-pharmacies:
- Regulatory issues: The ‘Draft Rules on Sale of Drugs by E-Pharmacy’ regulates e-pharmacies. It requires online sellers to register with the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO). Individuals must file for a license with the CDSCO to operate an e-pharmacy. The license is due for renewal every three years. But when it comes to counterfeit products, regulatory checks alone are not enough. Since these regulations are new, enforcement and understanding will take time. Using anti-counterfeit technology like track and trace, serialization, 2D codes, 3D codes, non-human-readable technology helps increase accountability.
- Mobile phone penetration but lack of digital literacy: Online pharmacies are popular in cities. Mobile phone and internet penetration have facilitated the same. There is no trusted face behind a medicine purchased online. So it can deter many purchasers. Many would go to their known pharmacy shops in the locality for a life-saving drug. But like all e-commerce portals, online pharmacies too can have fake reviews. Reviews add to the trust factor.
- Immunity boosters and non-prescription drugs: Immunity boosters are the new trend these days. The sharp rise in demand has caused fake immunity boosters to enter the market. Online pharmacies are an accessible portal for the sale of such products. With customer data on online pharmacies, counterfeiters can boost sales with targeted marketing. Non-prescription drugs and immunity booster supplements can surpass many regulatory checks.
- High demand, low supply: The pandemic created a felt shortage of essential medicines. High demand and low supply make a breeding ground for counterfeiters. Illegal online pharmacies that offer fake essentials use the pandemic to their advantage.
- User data privacy: Too much information with a few players can be dangerous. Any information leak to counterfeiters can help the grey market understand customer demands. Online pharmacies add one more step to an already complex supply chain. It can add to the loopholes in the supply chain, aiding counterfeit products to enter the market.
E pharmacies are inevitable in the digital world. Along with regulations, anti-counterfeit technology can safeguard the medical products sold online.