GlaxoSmithKline said yesterday it had started distributing its HIV drug Trizivir with radio frequency identification (RFID) to help protect against counterfeiting.

The tags will go on all Trizivir (abacavir/zidovudine/lamivudine) bottles distributed in the USA. GSK said it chose this product for the pilot scheme because the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy listed it as one of 32 drugs most vulnerable to counterfeiting.

RFID consists of a chip and antenna that can be read remotely using a sensor over a distance of a few metres.

GSK joins top drugmaker Pfizer in adopting pack-level RFID as a means to combat counterfeiting and diversion, which added the tags to its erectile dysfunction product Viagra (sildenafil) earlier this year.

GSK has already been experimenting with using tags on drug pallets to help it manage inventory and distribution of products, but this is the first time it has put the technology on an individual drug package. The RFID tags can be used by pharmacies and wholesalers to verify the unique Electronic Product Code on Trizivir’s packaging.

The FDA asked the drug industry to come up with standards and pilot processes for RFID that could lead to broad adoption and use of the technology.

In 2004, Wal-Mart - using its position as the world's largest retailer as a lever - imposed a deadline for its suppliers to tag at the pallet level all goods coming into its warehouses of January 1, 2005, although the complexity of the implementation meant that most suppliers missed this deadline.

Market researchers predict that RFID is set to take off in the pharmaceutical sector, as the level of counterfeiting of medicines escalates.

Frost & Sullivan estimates that the revenue from the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries investing in RFID technology will rise from $370 million to $2.3 billion in 2011. Meanwhile, technology market research firm Gartner notes that spending on RFID across all industries will balloon from around $500 million in 2005 to more than $3 billion in 2010.

By the end of the decade, counterfeiting of drugs is predicted to more than double to a global level of $75 billion, according to US think tank the Centre for Medicines in the Public Interest.