Fraud, Fakery, and Counterfeit Vaccines


Words by Isabel O’Brien

As the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines progresses across the globe, the inevitable challenge of fraud and counterfeiting is growing. How severe is this problem and what part must the industry play in protecting the public from fraudsters?


Humans have been copying, forging, and faking since as far back as 3300 BC. A primitive example was the cowrie shell, a glossy marine mollusc used as currency, which was counterfeited out of ivory, bone, clam shell, and stone. But as society has advanced, shells abandoned for coins, and coins exchanged for bright plastic credit cards, financial fakery has expanded to pharmaceutical fraud; such fraud has been subject to high scrutiny and tough regulation yet continues to pose a threat to vulnerable individuals all around the world.


When the COVID-19 vaccine approvals started coming in, we started celebrating the victory of science, thinking ‘we have achieved the panacea’

The substances that are typically the targets of counterfeiters include those for the most prolific and widespread diseases; a tagline tailor-written for the COVID-19 vaccines, which hold the key to ending national lockdowns and offer a tentative gateway back to normality.


“When the COVID-19 vaccine approvals started coming in, we started celebrating the victory of science, thinking ‘we have achieved the panacea’, but then news about vaccine frauds, scams, and document forgery started pouring in via news channels and social media from China, Europe, the US and India,” says Dr Maya Sharma, Global Medical Director, Win Medicare, and Advisory Board Member, JPADR.


Evidently, with great triumph comes great responsibility. While the industry has successfully manufactured a multitude of vaccine solutions to the pandemic, the aim must now be to protect the public from receiving illegitimate doses from unaccredited sources, a role that will require action from across the wider pharma metropolis. “Vaccine producers clearly have an incentive based on patient safety, wider obligations, and ethical considerations,” says Gustaf Duhs, Partner, Head of Regulatory, and Charlotte Tillett, Partner, Head of Life Sciences, Stevens & Bolton.


While supply chains are subject to frequent and rigorous testing, with Duhs and Tillett commenting: “Pharmaceutical companies and their trade associations work closely with government authorities, regulators, customs, and the police, to ensure the lawful supply of medicines.” Extra vigilance and layers of security must be investigated and implemented, with medical affairs playing a role in creating watertight distribution channels to protect vials and packaging from being intercepted by fraudsters.


“MA can work in collaboration with logistics and supply chains on radio-frequency identification (RFID) tagging of the vaccine batches and QR codes for each injection for end-to-end tracking of each vial,” suggests Sharma. “Blockchain technology could also take away these worries, but this may still be called a futuristic approach, as not many vaccine companies are well versed with it or have the workforce to implement it in the imminent future.” While blockchain use in supply chains is still in its infancy, this could serve as a valuable tool for protecting vaccines should vulnerabilities exceed expectations and need further protection.


Following the success of leading voices from pharma appearing on television during the vaccine development process, marketers must also position their figureheads in front of the cameras once again. “Due to public enthusiasm for ‘freedom from COVID-19’, news outlets have been carrying details about clinical trials, regulatory approvals, vaccine pricing, and distribution,” says Kay Wesley, CEO, Kanga Health. “I would like to see companies pool their marketing budgets to support major public health campaigns to encourage vaccine uptake, discredit the ‘anti-vaxxers’, and combat vaccine fraud.” Collaborating with governments and public health organisations will be necessary to create energising awareness campaigns around the dangers of fraud and how to avoid it.


We have seen some extremely worrying stories locally in the UK, including fraudsters going to the homes of elderly people

Social media is also a breeding ground for scams and misinformation on which it will be important to establish an anti-fraud rhetoric. “Health providers and companies must also be vigilant in monitoring social media spaces to quash misinformation as quickly as possible and respond to patients’ questions as they arise,” warns Wesley.


While we cannot forecast the impact of COVID-19 vaccine fraud, it is critical to focus our attention, resources, and public consciousness on this issue sooner rather than later. “It is too early for us to assess on a global basis what the impact of COVID-19 vaccine fraud will be. However, we have seen some extremely worrying stories locally in the UK, including fraudsters going to the homes of elderly people and charging them to administer fake vaccines,” says Duhs and Tillett. With schemes likely to only increase in sophistication, early action will be critical for preventing global populations from succumbing to unnecessary harm.


While concerns exist, we can feel confident in the knowledge that the pharma industry has been built and evolved not just to create medicines, but also to ensure that they are safely administered to patients. We are not only equipped to stop the cowrie shells from being infiltrated by clams, but also to help the public separate con artists from the real deal as vaccine programmes expand and progress.