The world is in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic and scientists are racing to develop and deploy safe and effective vaccines. Vaccines work by training and preparing the body’s natural defences — the immune system— to recognize and fight off the viruses and bacteria they target. If the body is exposed to those disease-causing germs later, the body is immediately ready to destroy them, preventing illness.
There are currently more than 50 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in trials. WHO is working in collaboration with scientists, business, and global health organizations through the ACT Accelerator to speed up the pandemic response. When a safe and effective vaccine is found, WHO will facilitate the equitable access and distribution of these vaccines to protect people in all countries. People most at risk will be prioritized.
Scientists are expressing confidence that effective vaccines will be developed, and much sooner than anyone could have hoped for when the pandemic first emerged, but hand-in-hand with the hopefulness is mounting concern about the availability of enough vaccines doses to meet the huge global demand and avoid creating loop holes that can be exploited by criminals and counterfeiting gangs.
According to Interpol false claims abound of medicines and vaccines which can protect against, or even cure, the virus. Fake medicines can be dangerous for a number of reasons. Perhaps they have been falsified or deliberately mislabeled. Illicit medicines often contain the wrong amount of active ingredient (too little, too much, or none at all). In other cases, the medicines may be genuine but have been stolen and then badly stored or may have expired. This means they could be ineffective or contaminated.
What products are affected?
A wide range of products are affected according to Interpol, including: Products and medicines related to COVID-19, including disposable surgical masks, hand sanitizers, antiviral and antimalarial medication, vaccines and COVID-19 test kits;
How can we spot fake COVID-19 medical products?
Counterfeit medicines are often packaged to a high standard with fake vaccines that look identical to the genuine ones. To the naked eye, there’s no discernible difference between the potentially life-saving liquid inside a COVID-19 vaccine vial and any other clear liquid.
In fact, not even trained personnel tasked with administering the vaccine will be able to test on the spot if the liquid contains the authentic mRNA vaccine. The technology needed to make these observations in the field simply doesn’t exist, says Nikos Passas, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern. Sometimes a high tech laboratory test is the only way to identify the difference.
To fight the trade of counterfeit vaccines and other medicines and supplies, Passas and a team of researchers are analyzing global trade networks and collaborating with pharmaceutical companies, banks, and law enforcement worldwide on how to ensure quality control and stop the illicit flow of potentially ineffective—or even fatal—fakes.
In the US, the risk of fakes is minimal as the Department of Homeland Security, which is playing a large role in overseeing quality control, published a list of guidelines to help consumers avoid fake vaccines:
- Always consult a licensed medical professional to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment.
- Make sure your doctor has been approved to administer the vaccine.
- Do not buy COVID-19 vaccines or treatments over the internet.
- Do not buy COVID-19 vaccines or treatments through an online pharmacy.
- Ignore unsolicited offers for vaccinations and miracle treatments or cures.
- Don’t respond to text messages, emails or calls about vaccines and treatments.
- Be wary of ads for vaccines and treatments on social media.
- Any suspicious activity can be reported to: email@example.com.
Dangers of unauthorized vaccines
In the worst case scenario, a counterfeit vaccine could directly harm a person. For example, the water used in the fake vaccine liquid could be contaminated with something unsafe for humans, Amiji says.
But even if the counterfeit vaccine doesn’t cause direct complications, it still won’t prevent COVID-19, and that could provide people with a false sense of security, Amiji says. People might engage in unsafe behaviors under the assumption that they’re protected from COVID-19.
In addition to counterfeit products, the task force also investigates stolen and smuggled authentic goods. In these cases, the vaccines are real, but if they travel through illicit or unsupervised channels to reach consumers, the quality of the vaccine could be compromised, Amiji says.
The mRNA vaccines in development in the U.S. require complicated storage in extremely cold freezers, making it difficult for unauthorized organizations to ship or store the vaccine properly since they might not have access to the necessary technology, Amiji explains.
The degradation process—changes in the chemical makeup of the vaccine that make it less potent or different entirely—is one of the main concerns for the mRNA vaccines, especially in substandard supply chains that don’t have access to freezers or dry ice, Amiji says. In the worst case scenario, degraded vaccines could be dangerous for humans.
For other countries with limited capacity to ensure quality it is important to adopt the Interpol’s mechanism for avoiding fake medicines and vaccines by Looking out for the “six Ps”:
Place – Never buy medicines from unknown websites or in a marketplace. Buy medicines and vaccines only from licensed suppliers who display an authenticity certificate. If you are unsure about a supplier’s credentials, check the list of registered dispensaries at your local health regulatory body. This applies to suppliers both online and offline.
Prescriptions – Only buy medicine and vaccines that has been prescribed by your doctor or healthcare professional. When buying online, make sure the website requires you to present a prescription. Do not buy from websites that offer prescriptions on the basis of questionnaires or do not have a contactable pharmacist.
Promises – Be wary of pharmacies that offer “too good to be true” promises. False promises to watch out for are “cures all types” of a major illness, “money-back guarantee”, “no risk” or “limited supply – buy in advance”.
Price – Check the price against products you usually buy or with reputable providers. If it is substantially cheaper, it is likely to be a fake.
Privacy – Do not supply any financial information to a website, unless you are sure it has a secure online payment system. The trade in fake medical products has also been linked to credit card fraud and identity theft. Do not reveal any personal information beyond appropriate medical details.
Product – Compare the medicines against your usual prescription. A medicine is fake if:
- It contains too much, too little or any different ingredients;
- Claims to have different properties or side-effects;
- Has a different shape, size, taste or colour;
- Is not correctly labelled or not labelled at all;
- Has an out-of-date or missing expiry date;
- Does not contain information on how to store the medicine;
- The packaging looks poorly constructed or appears to have interfered with;
- There are spelling or grammatical errors on the packaging or instructions.
Remember Counterfeit medicine is fake medicine. It may be contaminated or contain the wrong or no active ingredient. SEE: How to Spot Fake N95, NIOSH, or KN95 Face Mask From China