Optical Microtags to Safeguard Drugs

In July, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency raised the alarm about the spread of fake pills containing a deadly, potent opioid called fentanyl. “Hundreds of thousands” of these counterfeit drugs are changing hands around the country, the agency reported, and an estimated 700 people died from ingesting them between late 2013 and 2014 alone.

Drug counterfeiting is not only deadly—it’s big business. The size of the black market is inherently hard to quantify, yet some estimates put it in excess of $250 billion per year.

Fake drugs are a significant healthcare problem in developing countries, which often lack dedicated enforcement agencies, but the United States is not immune: In January, for instance, the DEA in New Jersey arrested a counterfeiter after an undercover agent purchased of 6,000 fake pills made  in the United States. The pills looked just like small, round 30-milligram oxycodone  tablets, but they contained fentanyl instead. (Both are pain killers used illicitly, but fentanyl is responsible for numerous overdose deaths.)

Counterfeit pills closely mimic the shape and size of authentic medications, and their true identity can often only be detected when a pill is taken to a laboratory, ground up, and analyzed—a process that can take days to weeks. A small,…[Read more]