In April 2021, Pfizer confirmed that fake Covid-19 vaccines were in circulation in Mexico and Poland. The worrying news came after authorities in those countries seized and conducted a test on the vaccines they suspected were fraudulent. The discovery raised questions about whether criminals were distributing fake vaccines more widely and what, if anything, could be done about it.
Because criminals work hard to cover their tracks, officials don’t know a great deal about the market for counterfeit Covid-19 vaccines. According to the Wall Street Journal, health care practitioners delivered around 80 doses of Covid-19 vaccines now known to be fake to patients in Mexico. Authorities only discovered the fraud when cyber police identified users on social media selling counterfeit vaccines for $2,500 a dose.
The market for counterfeit Covid-19 vaccines is being driven by supply shortages and extreme global demand. Fraudsters are mainly targeting individuals who can’t get vaccines through conventional public health care channels. However, some reputable public health institutions are also falling prey to their tactics.
The problem of fake vaccines and medicines is mainly related to developing countries but is nowadays spreading worldwide. According to internet researchers, the number of vaccine-related adverts on the darknet is increasing dramatically, alongside fraudulent Covid-19 vaccination cards, passports and false negative test results.
However, while alarming, officials are keen to point out that these developments are nothing new. According to the World Health Organization, criminals regularly look for opportunities to peddle fake drugs as the genuine article. The public centers for disease control and prevention advise to put the problem into perspective. As long as patients receive vaccines supplied through regulated and legal supply chains, the risk of falsified vaccines is low.
However, despite being original products, the risk is that some products might be illegally diverted, often under uncontrolled temperature and hygiene conditions.
Counterfeit medications are not an isolated issue. The WHO regularly reports incidences of fake drug distribution in every region of the world. Data shows that hundreds of thousands of people die from taking fraudulent medications every year.
The WHO also says that risks remain and that it is monitoring the situation. Part of its effort is to ensure that medical practitioners dispose of vaccine vials security so that fraudsters can’t refill them with fake products.
Over the past six months, drug companies distributed very few vaccine doses to the private market. So anyone purchasing Covid-19 vaccines outside of public health care systems is at a much higher risk of fraud.
Unfortunately, fake vaccines post a serious risk to individual and global public health. There are two main reasons for this:
The United Nations is currently working to detect and remove falsified products from circulation. Along with the WHO, it wants to increase vigilance throughout the global supply chain and ensure more protection of end users.
Centers for disease control, wholesalers, distributors, pharmacies, clinics and hospitals, it says, need to work to verify the proof of authenticity of drugs and vaccines that they receive from their suppliers. They should only source products from authorized and licensed dealers and should check the history and physical condition of products before using them. However, this often requires time and manually performed controls.
WHO is also warning that fraudulent medicines may compound the problems posed by the “delta” variant of COVID-19 – the version now on its way to becoming the dominant form of the coronavirus. It is more highly transmissible than prior versions, increasing the need to vaccinate vulnerable populations.
Already, rising infection rates are leading to increases in hospitalisations, leaving many in need of life-saving oxygen. In the future, more dangerous variants of coronavirus could emerge which may put even more pressure on health care systems and increase fatality rates.
Covid-19 vaccination, the WHO says, is the primary defense against these outcomes. However, falsified products are putting global health efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic at risk.
WHO has also issued a warning to the public, saying that anyone who has had an adverse reaction to any vaccine or purported medical products for treating COVID-19 should seek medical attention immediately. They should also report the incident to national medical authorities so that they can trace and arrest distributors of fake Covid-19 vaccines.
Because of the existence of fake vaccines and medications, many organizations and industry leaders are worried that global Covid-19 vaccination efforts to bring an end to the coronavirus pandemic will fail. However, technological solutions already exist that can counter counterfeits.
Conventional pharmaceutical supply chains rely on paper records to track goods from source to final destination. Unfortunately, such systems are open to criminal exploitation and fraud. Nefarious actors only need to copy paper records to pass off falsified vaccines and medications as their own.
Authena, however, offers a solution. Its technology fights fraudster’s ability to distribute false drugs and disguise them using false labels, copied QR codes and refilled discarded containers. It deals with the traceability issues in the sector by eliminating limited data on the product path from manufacturer to patient.
Authena’s solution uses blockchain, NFC technology and IoT environmental sensors to tag, track and authenticate pharmaceuticals. A blockchain-encrypted product seal prevents fraudulent refilling and protects from dilution.
NFC tags contain encrypted data related to the product and its origins which agents in the supply chain can simply read with their smartphones and upload to the blockchain. Tags also feature anti-peel technology which provides tampering evidence while active geolocators can detect any unauthorized detour in the product value chain.
Using Authena’s products provides many benefits and functions. Agents in the supply chain, for instance, can immutably transfer ownership of medications to somebody else. They can get proof of authenticity verification and product opening detection (which eliminates the problem of refilling).
Authena’s app allows users to report cases of opened or fake products to a central database. Ultimately, bringing the power of blockchain to pharmaceuticals reduces counterfeiting and improves end-to-end tracing. Once implemented, it increases patients’ security and boosts trust in medical systems.