GlaxoSmithKline is turning to technology to help prevent parallel trade in its HIV drugs Combivir (zidovudine and lamivudine) and Epivir (lamivudine), according to a report in the Financial Times.

The pharmaceutical industry has long argued that parallel trade – in which a trader sources lower-priced products from one country and imports them for sale in another where prices are higher – introduces a risk of mislabelling that puts patients at risk, and also serves as an entry point for counterfeit goods. And in the case of HIV drugs, the concern is that unscrupulous traders are profiting from the diversion of low-priced drugs that do not reach their intended recipients.

The UK drugmaker plans to produce versions of Combivir and Epivir for its humanitarian access programmes that will be markedly different from product destined for the developed world. By the end of the year, product supplied at cost will have a red coating to differentiate it from the more expensive white tablets, while GSK will also make use of anti-counterfeiting packaging and labelling technologies.

According to the FT report, GSK estimates that it provides two-fifths of humanitarian antiretroviral supplies, and that up to a quarter of the drugs by volume were illegally diverted in 2002, the first full year of the programme. The company has been in a long-running legal dispute with UK parallel trader Dowelhurst over allegations that the latter company knowingly supplied the National Health Service with HIV drugs originally sold to Keren, Intermed, Uniworld and L’Afrique aide L’Afrique on the understanding that they would be used in Africa [[17/03/04a]].