As the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccines steps up in the UK and further afield, there is a hidden risk to the success of the operation. In December 2020 the law enforcement agency Europol published an Early Warning Notification on the risks posed by vaccine related crime during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Fakes thrive on shortages
In October 2020, the WHO discovered some counterfeit batches of the influenza vaccine Fluzone in Mexico, which were not authorized by the manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur. Owing to the current pandemic, there was a shortage of influenza vaccines and organized criminals wasted no time in exploiting the opportunity that presented itself. Europol believes that the same scenario is likely to occur in the context of Covid-19 vaccines.
Already on sale, both online and offline, are fraudulent pharmaceutical products alleging to cure or treat Covid-19. For example, hydroxychloroquine, the drug championed by Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, is being sold online on the dark net for as little as $10 with erroneous claims that it is an effective treatment for Covid-19. It would be a logical next step for the groups involved with these to turn their hands to marketing and selling fraudulent Covid-19 vaccines.
What are the risks?
Fake vaccines and other medicines pose a huge risk to public health, as they may at best be ineffective or, at worst, toxic or damaging to health. Experts at Pfizer have found harmful substances in counterfeit medicines including boric acid, leaded highway paint, floor polish, brick dust and heavy metals. Even if they do not contain toxic substances, these drugs will not have undergone the rigorous testing and clinical trials procedure which are required before marketing authorizations are granted.
The European Union Intellectual Property Office and Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development recently published a Report on counterfeit pharmaceutical products based on data from 2014-2016. The Report estimates that 72,000 to 169,000 children may die from pneumonia every year after receiving counterfeit drugs, and fake anti-malaria medicine may have caused an additional 116,000 annual deaths. The Report highlights that these drugs often do not contain the required active ingredients and also contain other and potentially dangerous substances. Deaths tend to occur in countries where there is a high demand for the drugs, combined with poor surveillance, quality control and regulations, all of which make it easy for criminal gangs to infiltrate the market.
In the case of counterfeit vaccines there may be further consequences, for example if a community is assumed to have been vaccinated whereas in fact they have received a fake and ineffective vaccine. In this situation the chances of new outbreaks increases hugely. Fake vaccines may make people lose faith in the public health organizations that are trying to help… Lexology