International crime fighting agencies say organized crime groups have all the networks and methods needed to smuggle falsified, substandard and stolen COVID-19 vaccines across Africa.
Interpol crime intelligence analyst John-Patrick Broome said, as is the case in the rest of the continent, criminal gangs in East Africa import fake medicines from Asia, mostly China and India. The fake drugs often lack any active ingredients and many actually have harmful substances, he said.
“Illicit medications are primarily entering the market in eastern Africa through … avoidance of regulations, there’s violence-based criminality and there’s corruption as well, and corruption which is at a number of different levels,” Broome said.
China and India are expected to produce much of Africa’s vaccine supply.
That’s already a “big red flag,” says Nigerian journalist Ruona Meyer, whose work has exposed government officials and pharmaceutical company executives working with criminals to distribute falsified medicines in West Africa. Both countries are known as sources for faked pharmaceuticals.
Meyer says there won’t be enough vaccines, and as infection rates and deaths spike in some countries, criminals will introduce fakes into supply chains.
She points out they did that easily with chloroquine, when demand for the anti-malarial drug skyrocketed last year after it was touted as a coronavirus treatment.
“So, you had people who started producing fakes. You had people who started breaking down these routes. You had cases where these things were hijacked at ports. Again, they want to break that supply chain,” Meyer said.
Authorities throughout West and Central Africa seized large quantities of fake and substandard chloroquine. Police in Cameroon shut down several pharmaceutical manufacturers producing fake chloroquine.
“The infrastructure alone is mind-boggling, to be able to do all these things. Nobody does all these things if there is no demand,” she said.
One sign of the corruption sometimes found in medicine distribution is the 2015 conviction of two Dutch former United Nations consultants for rigging a contract for life-saving drugs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A court in Britain found Guido Bakker and Siibrandus Scheffer guilty of accepting a bribe of more than $900,000 to steer a contract to a Danish pharmaceutical company.
Lawyers Marius Schneider and Nora Ho Tu Nam represent some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies when their products are faked in Africa.
Ho Tu Nam said criminal organizations have been waiting eagerly for immunization programs to start, and for vaccine shortages.
“Now people are aware that the vaccine exists; people know it’s being rolled out in certain countries, and I think it’s a perfect time for those syndicates to come in and say, ‘We have the vaccine; you’re not getting it in the hospitals, you’re not getting it in your private clinics, so come to us.’” she said.
And they have been successful in the past. Schneider says groups dealing in black market vaccines do their best to make their products look legitimate.
“We have seen instances where NGOs … have been engaged in the distribution of these vaccines. These NGOs had as a mission to distribute real vaccines to the people. Employees on the ground in African countries were implicated in vaccine traffic,” Schneider said.
Investigators say often such cases are settled out of court, in confidential settlements. But in one known case, employees of a multi-national pharmaceutical company were caught helping a criminal network distribute fake vaccines in Africa.
Mark Micallef of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime says North Africa could be a major entry point for falsified and substandard vaccines.
He said “uncontrolled” trafficking of fake medicines, such as the pain reliever tramadol, has been happening across the vast region for decades.
“Fake vaccines — I think there’s a big danger of that in the Maghreb itself, so unregulated territories in Libya, definitely. But, also in Tunisia and maybe border areas of Egypt, less so in Algeria, perhaps, but especially in the northern Sahel,” Micallef warned.
Criminals dealing in fake medicines exploit gaps in health services and this will be especially true of COVID-19 shots, and that, Micallef said, will make the crime very difficult to control in North Africa.
“This form of trafficking is tapping an actual health sector need. And the fear is that in the case of the vaccines, a similar scenario might unfold where there are shortages, especially in the border areas, that are preyed upon by criminal enterprise trying to fill that gap,” he said.