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Leveraging Emerging Technologies to Battle Counterfeiting in the Era of COVID-19

Shriram Ramanathan, Ph.D., Research Director & Miraj Mainali, Research Associate
April 16, 2020

Scientists and researchers are racing to develop preventive, curative, and diagnostic tools to combat the novel coronavirus and the disease caused by it, Covid-19. To protect themselves from the air-borne virus, citizens all over the world have hoarded N95 face masks, at the behest of their state/national governments or otherwise, which has led to an acute shortage of masks in the marketplace. Counterfeiters have taken advantage of this sharp demand and have infiltrated markets with counterfeit face masks. Still others have resorted to selling counterfeit diagnostics kits while experts anticipate that medications and vaccines are likely to be counterfeited next. 

N95 face masks filter at least 95% of airborne particles

N95 face masks filter at least 95% of airborne particles

Traditionally, product manufacturers have used trademarks and patents to protect their products against counterfeiting. However, as supply chains went global, it became hard to monitor patent and trademark violations and manufacturers started using product identifiers such as company logos, barcodes, holograms, and radio-frequency tags to identify products as they moved through the supply chain. However, as noted in our recent insight, such efforts no longer provide full protection against counterfeiting for the several reasons:

  1. Many additive identifiers are printed on or attached to product packages. Counterfeiters replace original products with their bogus products in the original packaging and use a similar sealant.

  2. Even if identifiers are added to the product itself by engraving bar codes or using hologram stickers, they are not unique to each product, which leaves the door open for counterfeiters to manufacture low quality counterfeit products and use similar identifiers.

  3. Most end consumers do not have the tools or expertise to verify the authenticity of the identifier.

  4. Most consumers do not bother verifying purchased products because of lack of an incentive or knowledge that counterfeits could exist.

To address these shortcomings, manufacturers have incorporated minor improvements in incumbent anti-counterfeiting technologies over the years such as using more immutable inks in printing barcodes, hiding bar codes under a scratch-off layer, using multiple bar codes for the same product, and using NFC tags that can be verified with a smartphone. Besides incumbent technologies, there are other promising anti-counterfeiting measures that are emerging, such as:

  1. Computer vision, in which industrial and, in some cases, smartphone cameras are used to take pictures of products as soon as they are manufactured to create immutable digital fingerprints, which are then compared with pictures taken at various stages of the supply chain for authentication. Such solutions not only work as a stand-alone tool but also complement some incumbent technologies. For example, computer vision can be used to read imperfections in bar codes , detect tampering with NFC tags, and spot duplicate holograms thereby creating a unique identity for every product.

  2. Multispectral imaging, in which technologies such as X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and hyperspectral imaging allow for identifying products based on their inherent chemical properties. As an example, RxAll uses deep learning and hyperspectral imaging to authenticate prescription drugs (tablets, powders, and liquids).

  3. Chemical coatings, such as that offered by Dust Identity (see here), which makes a polymer that contains diamond nanoparticles which can be applied to products. The coating process locks the nanodiamonds into specific orientations, thereby offering a unique signature for every product. By analyzing the physical orientation of diamond particles using a hand-held or mounted scanner, such products can be identified and authenticated in various stages of the supply chain.

  4. Electronic nose, such as that offered by iSense, is a device that can detect odors or flavors. By assigning unique odors to food, a signature can be created, which can then be used for authentication. Although the technology is still in a research stage and not yet quite as capable in creating unique digital fingerprints for individual food items, such unique fingerprints can be used to detect adulteration, false or misleading origin, and mislabeling.

It’s important to note that all of these incumbent and emerging anti-counterfeiting technologies are at different levels of maturity, price points, and offer varying levels of security, accessibility, and convenience. For example, while computer vision is more scalable and inexpensive compared to other product identification technologies, it is relatively less mature, and there are only a handful of companies offering such services at the moment. Similarly, despite hyperspectral imaging’s potential to be used in different industries for anti-counterfeiting, factors like high cost, large form factor, and the need for large computational power pose barriers to adoption. Furthermore, different technologies work well with different types of products. Product manufacturers should consider all of these factors while evaluating these technologies for adoption. Please see our recently published insight for a detailed discussion of these factors.

Critical health supplies including face masks, medicines, and vaccines will be crucial in the battle against the coronavirus. However, the only thing that is worse than the lack of medical supplies amid a pandemic is the availability of fake products that give a false sense of security and put millions of lives at risk. Governments and manufacturers should consider using a combination of mature incumbent anti-counterfeiting tools along with less mature emerging technologies discussed above to prevent counterfeiting during these dire times. Indeed, startups such as Veracity Protocol and Cypheme are willing to offer their anti-counterfeiting solutions to Covid-19 related supplies at their cost.



 Additional COVID-19 Resources

- Blog: The State of Delivery Innovation Among COVID-19

- Blog: Driving Factors of the Next Generation of Automated Inspection Systems  

- Blog: Can Innovation Stop a Global Pandemic?

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