COVID-19-Related Trafficking of Medical Products as a Threat to Public Health

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Wednesday, July 08, 2020 / 01:40 PM / by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime / Header Image Credit: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 

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Executive Summary

Restrictions on movement imposed by governments across the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic have had an impact on the trafficking of substandard and falsified medical products. Interpol and the World Customs Organization (WCO) reported that seizures of substandard and falsified medical products, including personal protective equipment (PPE), increased for the first time in March 2020.


The emergence of trafficking in PPE signals a significant shift in organized criminal group behaviour that is directly attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought huge demand for medical products such as PPE over a relatively short period of time. It is foreseeable that, with the evolution of COVID-19 and developments in medicinal treatments and/or the repurposing of existing medicines, criminal behaviour will shift from trafficking in PPE to the development and delivery of a COVID-19 vaccine. Furthermore, cyberattacks on critical infrastructure involved in addressing the pandemic are likely to continue in the form of online scams aimed at health procurement authorities.


Challenges in pandemic preparedness, ranging from weak regulatory and legal frameworks to the prevention of the manufacturing and trafficking of substandard and falsified products and cyber security shortcomings, were evident before COVID-19, but the pandemic has exacerbated them and it will be difficult to make significant improvements in the immediate short term.


The report concludes that crime targeting COVID-19 medical products will become more focused with significantly greater risks to pub- lic health as the containment phase of the pan- demic passes to the treatment and prevention stages.


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Key Messages

COVID-19 has been the catalyst for a hitherto unseen global market for the trafficking of PPE. There is also some evidence of the trafficking of other forms of substandard and falsified medical products, but not to the same extent as PPE. Research will be required to determine the reasons for this. It can be expected that as a treatment becomes available and a vaccine to prevent contracting COVID-19 is identified, the focus will move away from PPE scams towards vaccine and treatment scams, including cyber scams.


The shift in cyberattacks towards medical product supplies and health infrastructure correlates with the spread of COVID-19. As the pandemic further develops to the stabilisation phase, it is anticipated that any suspension of ransomware attacks on critical health facilities and the medical product supply chain will resume.


In the context of COVID-19, the absence of an effective and comprehensive regulatory framework in some countries, including weak technical capacity, constrained access and ineffective oversight to address substandard and falsified medical products, is not only life-threatening for those countries, it is also a challenge for the global community.


The global challenge to countries and international organizations to respond to the immediate effects of COVID-19 has been impacted by the trafficking of substandard and falsified medical products, which undermined their preparedness for the pandemic and their capacity to prevent the spread of the disease.


Strengthening legal frameworks and penalties with a view to achieving a more harmonized global approach to the criminalization of the manufacturing and trafficking of falsified medical products will enable better national, regional and international responses to this type of crime, which impacts individual and public health on a global basis.


Building governance improvements by addressing good practices in the procurement of medical products and the elimination of opportunities for corruption is an essential development to prevent substandard and falsified medical products from entering the health system.


Preventing, detecting and responding to medical product-related crime will require new or additional cross-skill training in the medical product sector and enhanced national coordination mechanisms by all relevant actors to address current and future challenges.


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