Counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines rise, eroding trust and endangering us all

PUBLISHED: Fri, 05 Mar 2021 12:33:02 GMT
Dr. Kristina M. L. Acri, née Lybecker
CNBC Africa

A global fake Covid-19 distribution network has just been dismantled in South Africa, highlighting the growing threat of illegal trade and counterfeit goods across the African continent. If left unchecked, there is no doubt the illegal industry will grow at a time when we face an unprecedented health and economic crisis.

Interpol, which represents 194 international police forces, said that 400 ampoules, equivalent to around 2,400 doses containing the fake vaccine, were found at a warehouse in Germiston, Gauteng in South Africa. Officers also recovered a large quantity of fake 3M masks and arrested three Chinese nationals and a Zambian national.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken at least 104,000 lives across the African continent, pushing healthcare systems and providers to breaking point. Supply chains are disjointed, law enforcement and border forcer agencies stretched, allowing criminal networks to strengthen their hold on the black market.

The illicit trade in counterfeit goods and medicine is very much a global issue that has been building since the start of the COVID pandemic. In the spring of 2020, organized crime networks were already targeting US unemployment benefits systems and professed to sell vaccines when no vaccine yet existed. Now, with the development of several promising vaccines, criminals see expanded opportunities to deceive and defraud. As US Surgeon General Jerome Adams noted, “whenever there is a demand for something there will be nefarious people who produce counterfeit products”. 

Mounting evidence indicates that such scams are already on the rise globally. China recently arrested the leader of a multi-million dollar vaccine scam, who made a profit of 18m yuan ($2.78m) by putting saline solution or mineral water in syringes and hawking them as COVID vaccines.

The U.S. FBI, Interpol and the World Health Organization, among others, warn of emerging pandemic-related fraud schemes. The risk of receiving a bogus vaccine is especially high when medicines are purchased online. With the approval of multiple vaccines, researchers have found that online advertisements for illicit vaccines have exploded and the asking prices have doubled or tripled, in some cases reaching more than $1500. As of late November 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had seized more than $26 million in illicit proceeds and analyzed more than 69,000 COVID-19 domain names. 

More recently, a bogus website, purported to belong to the drug maker Moderna, was shut down. According to Oded Vanunu, a cybersecurity researcher based in Israel, more than 1,700 new vaccine-related websites have cropped up since November.  On the dark web, counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines are offered next to cocaine, opioid medications, handguns, and fake passports. 

For consumers, the dangers extend beyond receiving a vaccine that does not protect against the virus.  Counterfeit products may not do what they claim, and the ingredients could cause adverse effects or interfere with essential medicines. Substandard and falsified medicines can also create a false sense of security, leaving the individual vulnerable to infection and increasing the risk of transmission of the illness to others. 

In addition, toxic reactions and dangerous side-effects will also serve to undermine the faith the public has in those vaccines that are genuine and effective. Finally, coronavirus vaccine scammers also put one’s financial security at risk. An analysis by Interpol’s cybercrimes unit found that of approximately 3,000 online pharmaceutical websites suspected of selling counterfeit products, more than half – 1,700 – contained phishing or spamming malware. 

In a world of convergence, the illicit trade in pharmaceuticals is following a well-trodden path that was once the preserve of narcotics, arms, people trafficking, illegally harvested timber, endangered wildlife, gold and other natural resources, alcohol and illicit cigarettes.

The World Bank estimates the trade in illicit cigarettes was worth $40-50 billion each year before the pandemic struck, while the trade in illicit pharmaceutical is said to be worth around $4 billion. Clearly, without effective public policy and more stringent law enforcement, it is reasonable to suggest that the illicit trade in pharmaceuticals will probably go the same way as illicit tobacco.

With the International Chamber of Commerce predicting that global counterfeit trade will reach $4 trillion by 2022, there is a clear need for industry and governments to work together on this issue.

At a time of increasing demand, we must not let the counterfeiters capitalize on our fear and impatience. Consumers must be vigilant, and policymakers must be proactive. The promising vaccines becoming available provide hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight, but only if the public is treated with safe and efficacious drugs, the legitimate vaccines. 

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