COVID-19–Related Trafficking of Medical Products Reported

By: Priyanka Oza

October 1, 2020

Categories: AAMI News, Clinical, Early Career, Education & Academia, Executive , Government, Health Technology Management, HTM Professionals, Individual Contributor, Manager or Director

Following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, incidences of organized criminal activity related to substandard and falsified (SF) medical products represent a public health risk, according to a research brief published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Seizure and interception of SF products have been reported across Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia, the agency stated.

In the brief, COVID-19-related Trafficking of Medical Products as a Threat to Public Health, UNODC analyzed the implications of various incidences worldwide and proposed solutions involving strengthened regulatory frameworks and better oversight during the manufacturing and distribution of medical products. When a vaccine for COVID- 19 becomes available, the focus will shift from trafficking of personal protective equipment (PPE) to vaccines, thereby further jeopardizing efforts to protect peoples’ health.

Restrictions on the movement of goods imposed by governments worldwide due to the pandemic have increased the demand for PPE products in a short period. “Organized criminal groups have adjusted to the opportunities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic to exploit the vulnerabilities and gaps in the existing health and criminal justice systems,” stated Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, in an April 2020 report.

Criminal groups adapt to changing landscapes faster than law enforcement authorities, hindering efforts for adequate investigation. An absence of reports from SF medical products globally during COVID-19 indicates a need for more collaboration and cooperation among national agencies.

“Criminal groups are defrauding procurement agencies and customers by offering SF PPE. In March 2020, Interpol (International Criminal Police Organization) coordinated Pangea Operation XII, which targeted illegal online sales of medical products. Law enforcement agencies and healthcare regulatory authorities from 90 countries worked together to arrest 121 criminals and seize more than $14 million of potentially dangerous pharmaceutical products,” UNODC wrote in its report.

The emergence of the pandemic has seen data compromise frauds, including phishing, scamming, and business email compromise, through the manipulation of corporate websites, in order to convince purchasers that firms are genuine. In many data compromise frauds, there is no intention to supply medical products; it is simply a scheme to deprive the buyer of the purchase price.

The dark web marketplace, Monopoly Market, has banned its vendors from supplying COVID-19–related medical supplies and has prohibited the use of the pandemic as a marketing tool. However, according to UNODC, risks remain and are predicted to increase as a transition occurs from the current containment phase to the diagnostic and testing phase of the pandemic for the healthcare supply chain, pharmaceutical industry, and PPE industry.

The UNODC report included information on the following:

  • More than 3,300 thermometers were seized while being trafficked in Thailand.
  • A shipment of thermometers seized in Italy did not meet EU regulations.
  • A fraud inquiry related to SF ventilators has begun in Russia.

The increase in rates of medical product trafficking reduces legitimate stock for its intended market, stated UNODC. If agencies unintentionally use funds allocated by the national public health budget to buy SF products, stockouts (shortages of in-demand medical products) will occur. These shortages create opportunities for medical traffickers, fueling a vicious cycle that negatively affects people’s health and safety. The nature of such crimes, due to the consumption of SF medical products, makes it hard to collect and analyze evidence.

Increasing manufacturing capacity for PPE and vaccines, for example, reduces the opportunity for scams and trafficking; however, that is not easily accomplished given the advanced infrastructure required to produce such products. More time is needed to build a safe supply chain, and according to UNODC, criminal groups exploit this time gap through the selling of SF products.