Vaccine supply chains at risk of theft and counterfeiting

31 March 2021

Investment in security is required to protect vaccine supplies from criminal activity such as theft and counterfeiting, a firm has warned.

The supply chain must be “increasingly alert” to threats such as the illegal sale of authentic vaccines and counterfeiting, substitution with fake pharmaceuticals and contamination, said freight insurance provider TT Club.

The World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation, GAVI, and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation are ramping up vaccine supply to some of the world’s poorest nations, but there must “be appropriate investment in the security of the subsequent supply chains”, TT Club said. 

Mike Yarwood, managing director of loss prevention at TT Club, said the risks should not be underestimated.

“It is probable that the market for counterfeit pharmaceuticals is worth $400 billion a year and the World Health Organisation estimates that up to one million people die annually from counterfeit drugs,” he said.

“The current and future supply chain challenge to distribute the Covid-19 vaccines, in all their forms, from various countries of production, will mean that these figures are likely to grow.”

There have already been numerous examples of Covid-related supply chains encountering criminal activity. In the UK, three arrests were made following the theft from a truck of Covid-19 lateral flow testing kits that were destined for Essex schools worth over £100,000.

In February, Chinese authorities arrested the leader of a multi-million dollar scam that made more than 58,000 vials of saline solution and mineral water in a vaccine counterfeiting operation. The operation is estimated to have made a profit of 18m yuan ($2.78m).

Around 400 vials were discovered to contain fake vaccines in a warehouse in Gauteng, South Africa. In both cases, it is unclear what volume of fakes had already been manufactured and shipped. Malpractice has also been identified in Latin America in Mexico and Brazil.

Covid-19 vaccines, which could be real or counterfeits, have been posted for sale on the dark net, with prices ranging from $250-300, TT Club added. 

The insurance provider said governmental agencies must give equal attention to the end-to-end vaccine supply chain to “avert fatal undermining of the substantial R&D efforts globally”.

Yarwood added: “Should the responsibilities of the pharmaceutical companies and organisations funding the supply end at the point of production and sale, leaving local governments to manage security through the supply chain? A degree of uncertainty will prevail and security effectiveness differ from region to region. 

“Operators who are called upon to transport, store and deliver such vital supplies therefore must be super vigilant in guarding against loss through theft and the infiltration of fakes into the supply chain.”

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