AstraZeneca’s Brand Protection Journey: A Story of Collaboration

  • Brand Protection
AstraZeneca’s Brand Protection Journey: A Story of Collaboration

AstraZeneca’s brand protection journey is one of close collaboration, ‘learning by doing’, and adaptation in the face of new threats.

In this blog, Katie Silk and Flora BrookeTurner share how AstraZeneca’s Global Security Team combats illegally diverted medicines, scams, and counterfeits with the goal of safeguarding its patients. They discuss how they approach intelligence sharing and collaboration with platforms, regulators – and even their competitors.

The start of AstraZeneca’s brand protection journey

When Flora joined AstraZeneca, the Global Security Team only had a headcount of three at the time, supported by vendors and embedded consultants. The team had a very small online monitoring program. Katie described it as “quite piecemeal”, with the use of a spreadsheet containing thousands of rows of domains and marketplaces. Flora says, “We didn’t know where to start. We weren’t really in a place where we could do anything effective with our program.”

But with the rollout of the COVID vaccine and more attention being paid to global health security than in living memory, the Global Security Team was reinforced with increased human resources and budget to build an online project for its Fraud Squad. Katie says, “That’s when the Global Security Team entered into partnership with Corsearch, to help us manage some of those risks that we knew existed online but didn’t know how to how to deal with.”

Now, AstraZeneca has a brand protection partner in Corsearch, champions internal and external collaboration, has an offline resource and work on a global scale, and has finally got visibility on all platforms globally. But how did this journey unfold?

Illegally diverted medicines, scams, and counterfeits – where does AstraZeneca focus its efforts?

The COVID vaccine

Initially, AstraZeneca’s brand protection program focused on threats to the COVID vaccine – this led to the discovery of countless scams both online and offline. There were extraordinary volumes of this fraudulent activity; Katie says there were criminal entities offering ‘hundreds of millions’ of doses to governments. Of course, these doses never actually existed. Soon after, AstraZeneca encountered fake websites offering vaccines directly to consumers.

Working with Corsearch, AstraZeneca’s Global Security Team was able to quickly establish strong relationships with both marketplaces and social media, with a focus on swiftly removing scam posts that purported to sell vaccines. The team also monitored on-the-ground activity, such as images of packaging being stolen and spread through online conspiracy theory groups.

Respiratory oncology

The Global Security Team’s job extends far beyond protecting the vaccine; AstraZeneca has a huge portfolio of lifesaving medicines, particularly respiratory oncology. Since the end of the pandemic, the team has focused its efforts on tackling illegally diverted products.

AstraZeneca treats illegal diversion as equally damaging to patient safety as counterfeits. Katie says, “We won’t guarantee a diverted product. We don’t know how it’s being handled, stored, transported – it doesn’t have necessarily the same quality logistics applied to it. It may be exposed to extreme heat or cold. Its expiry date may have already passed.”

“We’ve had cases that demonstrate that the presence of illegally diverted product in the market can become so pervasive that they are what counterfeiters choose to make fake versions of, because it’s more familiar to the local population than the local version of the product.”

Katie Silk, Director of investigations at AstraZeneca

When the team discovers counterfeit products, they quickly work to reduce their proliferation in the affected market. Flora says, “We look at how can we apply trade data within our monitoring program to understand the online drivers of that export trade.”

Shortly after partnering with Corsearch, the Global Security Team noticed that its risk data was pointing to Southeast Asia as a particular hotspot for illegal diversion. The team worked with Corsearch and the local AstraZeneca affiliates in those markets, harnessing their strong relationships with regulators and the Ministry of Health. This enabled AstraZeneca to reduce the threat of illegal diversion and effect real change across the entire market.

Katie says, “Illegal diversion is where we decided to focus our efforts in other areas of our portfolio, because with a small team it’s something that we could really dive into, understand the issues and look to replicate that model across other markets.”

How moving from a reactive strategy to a proactive strategy delivered results

Prior to partnering with Corsearch, Flora says that the Global Security Team were investigating reports of illegal diversion and counterfeits in a “very reactive way”. Each case would receive the same attention and level of priority.

Flora says, “Now, we have data at our fingertips that allows to take a step back, be more proactive, and look at where the key risk indicators are. Because even if you have unlimited resources, you’ll never be able to do everything.” Katie and Flora can show the business why they are working in a particular risk area, because this is what the data supports. Katie says, “In practice, this is about not applying the same level of resources across every issue that we encounter.”

At the start of the partnership with Corsearch, AstraZeneca did not have a set of specific deliverables. For Katie’s team, it was a case of “learning by doing”. Flora says, “any activity with Corsearch was more than we were doing before”. The Global Security Team quickly span up an enforcement program and started to get more listings removed; it was able to measure platform compliance; it began to measure units of diverted medicines removed from visibility so that patients couldn’t purchase them online – with the team attributing a financial value to this activity. Flora describes these outcomes as the “short term return on investment.”

Over the last couple of years, working in close partnership with Corsearch and its external partners, the Global Security Team has developed a more strategic view of how the data can be used, while continuing to implement a routine enforcement program. That gave the team the opportunity to report back to the business on how it was demonstrating return on investment.

With data at its fingertips, the team is now able to see the bigger picture and hone its overall strategy. It can see entire networks of infringers by mapping connections between online profiles, listings, and websites, and other entities. Katie says, “We’ve been able to expand the scope of our program very recently. We’re moving on from that ‘tactical’, routine enforcement – which was completely new to us at the beginning – and we are now developing a program more sophisticated which uses advanced tools.”

To date, AstraZeneca has removed very large quantities of medicines being sold without prescription. Equally important is the fact that it can now influence policy changes at marketplaces and other platforms. They now have organized crime and online illegal pharmacies firmly in their sights.

Working closely with platforms

The investments were successful, largely in part because AstraZeneca and Corsearch worked closely with platforms for a more sustained impact. On Tokopedia, for example, AstraZeneca saw a staggering 94% reduction in infringing listings in four months of enforcement.

Flora says, “We were also seeing platforms change their policies.” Some, for example, began to block variants of AstraZeneca brand terms. The Global Security Team identified “Symbic0rt”, which is a misspelling of one of AstraZeneca’s asthma medications that uses the number zero instead of the letter. Many platforms now block this as a search term and other keywords that the team identified on marketplaces in the Southeast Asia region.

The increase in compliance rate is another indicator of the success of AstraZeneca’s brand protection program. Katie states, “We’ve seen an increase in compliance from 68% in 2021, to 92% in 2022.” Katie explains that the Global Security Team presented this in a summary of its work to the Indonesian Food and Drug Administration, and that they were “really impressed” with what her team managed to achieve on marketplaces in the region. Katie shares that the team has also received support from AstraZeneca’s marketing affiliates in the region who were pleased with its successes.

“During COVID, with the emergency use authorization of the vaccine all platforms were stepping up to help us keep consumers safe. Since the end of the pandemic, we’ve seen platforms step back a bit. However, we’ve had some amazing collaboration from platforms in Southeast Asia.”

Katie Silk, Director of investigations at AstraZeneca

How AstraZeneca investigates criminal networks

While AstraZeneca cleans platforms, it also gathers data to determine who the main players are and which territories they’re operating from. Using network analysis, Corsearch’s powerful tool for connecting infringer networks, AstraZeneca can take the noise out of the data and focus on the big targets.

Flora says, “We were seeing thousands of listings each month. But when we did the analysis, there weren’t actually thousands of sellers. We investigated connected entities that offer our products online using Corsearch’s brand protection technology and open-source intelligence. This was a great starting point in moving our focus offline.”

The Global Security Team looks at a multitude of different sources of intelligence, but one that’s really important is trade data. The team look at publicly available customs data and link exports as to make sense of the countless affiliate network operating. By taking this approach, they can track where bad actors are originally shipping product from and which markets the product is illegally diverted to. Katie says that the team are constantly building intelligence and working with other pharmaceutical companies to shut down illicit operators.

Using image matching technology to take down a criminal network in Indonesia

To dismantle one criminal network in Indonesia “It all started with images”, explains Flora. The Global Security Team found that the same packaging images, logos, product descriptions were being used by many users across the different platforms. The team sorted top sellers by volume and stock value and – using open-source intelligence – identified an offline location in East Jakarta. By using Network Analysis, Katie and Flora were able to verify over 350 accounts across platforms associated with over 4,000 listings – all belonging to the same network.

Flora says, “We continued to monitor these listings and accounts. By interrogating the images further, we found some distinguishing features in the image backgrounds.” This eventually led the team to a phone number which was linked to a shopping center in Jakarta. Once they had the physical address, the team were able to conduct an offline investigation along with test purchases. Katie explains that they did so in collaboration with another pharmaceutical company who were also impacted by this network.

The importance of industry-wide collaboration

As many teams responsible for brand protection are all too aware, it can be difficult to convince competitors of the value of collaboration. Katie notes that one of the great things about the pharmaceuticals industry, however, is that while there is competition where patient safety is concerned, organizations are prepared to talk to each other. There’s a very close-knit group of professionals who do the same job as Katie and Flora – and the criminals that are targeting one company are generally targeting several others.

AstraZeneca’s Global Security Team will share information and intelligence with other pharmaceutical organizations. Keen to work on joint investigations, Katie notes, “More voices are better than one when you’re trying to influence local law enforcement or a health ministry to take some action.”

Flora says, “It’s always more influential if you go to a law enforcement agency and you’re able to say, ‘we have five companies with evidence of counterfeit product or other criminal threat’.” Flora explains that they would select a lead company with the most influence or experience in the market to lead that, but with the “voice of all of us behind.”

Additionally, Floras notes that identifying a common target across multiple businesses effectively helps AstraZeneca “cut down on some of the budgetary costs” – but it is also more effective as they are not “duplicating activities” and “tipping off” the criminal networks that investigators are on to them.

“Any knowledge that we that we obtain, we’re more than happy to share back with our peers in the industry.”

Katie Silk, Director of investigations at AstraZeneca

The Pharmaceutical Security Institute

AstraZeneca is a member of an industry association known as the Pharmaceutical Security Institute (PSI). Katie says that members of the PSI tend to be very transparent about what they are seeing, because the issues never impact one organization in isolation. To this end, there is strong support for responding to these issues collectively.

Katie notes that when companies collaborate with members of industry associations such as the PSI, they won’t generally need to request or sign non-disclosure agreements. This is because most associations require members to sign up to a code of conduct, preventing anti-competitive practices and barring the disclosure of confidential information.

Final tip from Katie Silk: learn from your colleagues and external partners

Katie’s message for other legal and security teams responsible for brand and consumer protection is, “Don’t be afraid to admit if you don’t know that much about a particular area of brand protection. Be prepared to ask others for their insights and to learn by doing.” Katie explains that her team has delivered success because of the “great support network” around it, both from its “legal colleagues” across the globe and its “external partners such as Corsearch.”

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About AstraZeneca

AstraZeneca is a global science led biopharmaceutical business based in Cambridge. Operating in over 100 countries, their medicines are used by patients worldwide. Specifically, AstraZeneca focuses on the discovery, development and commercialization of prescription medications across oncology, rare disease diseases, biopharmaceuticals including cardiovascular, renal metabolism and respiratory and immunology.

About Katie Silk

Katie Silk is the Director of Investigations at AstraZeneca, heading up the Global Security Team within the legal function. She has been with the company for almost four years, having joined in March 2020, which was a critical point in the company’s history. Katie has worked in the pharma industry since 2010, working for a number of companies. Prior this, she worked as an intelligence analyst and had a background in policing in the UK.

About Flora Brooke-Turner

Flora Brooke-Turner is an Investigations Senior Specialist at AstraZeneca. She focuses on the implementation of AstraZeneca’s digital disruption strategy and the investigation into entities involved in the illegal trade of its pharmaceutical products. Flora has over six years of combined experience in the security and investigation sector, having worked in various roles for two leading global intelligence and risk consultancies.