COVID Vaccine Counterfeiting Will Be Explosive

 

Liquid Gold. That's how Interpol has described organized crime's view of vaccine demand. The more in demand a product is, the more it will be counterfeited. We can count on an absolute tidal wave of COVID vaccine and treatment counterfeiting to flood the markets now that the vaccine is available.

A producer from the BBC morning show "Newsday" wanted my perspective on COVID-19 vaccine authentication, the problems, the logistical issues, etc., with a view of distributing COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.

Listen to our conversation here, or scroll down to read the full transcript:
 
 

 

Interview Transcript

BBC Journalist:
18 minutes to the hour. We have an overlooked angle on the pandemic, now. Really, we do. After so much discussion of the vaccines being developed, the focus on the delivery systems, the syringe supply, the PPEs for vaccinators, we're now going to talk about the danger from counterfeiting. It's a recognized problem around the world, so will it affect the rollout of billions of doses of vaccine and what can you do about it? If batches of vaccine are tracked, as they are at the moment with barcodes, can't they just fake the barcodes? Yes, they can. Steve Tallant works on medical authentication for a company called Systech, which is working on solutions to this problem. He says that fake medicine of all kinds is already a massive global problem.

Steve Tallant:
Roughly, if you add it all up, 10% of global medications are in a counterfeit market. In some markets, up to 70% in developing nations, the medicines in those nations are counterfeit. Central governments, if it is a central government, they have to source medicines. Sometimes they're in short supply, sometimes they have to go digging, and that's a big-time opportunity for the counterfeiters to get illegitimate pharmaceuticals into the legitimate drug supply chain.

BBC:
Because there is going to be an enormous pressure for a long time. There isn't going to be enough vaccine, so people are going to be scrambling, so that would seem to be a recipe for irregular purchasing. Basically, that is something that you're predicting could explode.

Steve Tallant:
Absolutely. When you think about COVID-19 vaccines, let's take the EU as an example. All member states in the EU are not created equal. Some are low-cost pharmaceutical states, some are higher-cost pharmaceutical states. Legitimate distributors, what they can do, and it's not contractually advised for them to do this, but they can take advantage of those price differentials, purchase legitimate pharmaceuticals at bulk scale in low-cost member states, but then take them and sell them at the higher margin in the high-cost geographies. Then what happens is that there are shortages in the lower-cost states. They have to source the medicines from somewhere and in swoop the opportunistic counterfeiters into the legitimate supply chain with counterfeit drugs.

BBC:
Now, a legitimate supply chain, as I understand it, uses serialization, barcodes. Is it easy to fake a barcode?

Steve Tallant:
Well, serialized barcodes are still a printed asset on a package. They can be reproduced easily by counterfeiters. When the serial numbers are issued and put on the packages, that's noted, and the next time that that barcode is actually utilized is at dispense. If you, for example, take those low-cost legitimate vaccines, and look to divert them to another market, you can actually offload a lot of those boxes and packaging to a counterfeiter for example. They will replicate the barcodes that were on those boxes and put them on counterfeits, meaning the counterfeit vaccine that has a legitimate serial number on it will "authenticate" as okay, as legit. And then when the second box comes down the line and gets "authenticated" at dispense, it has that legitimate serial number on it, it is in fact a legitimate product, it will be marked as suspect.

BBC:
We've been thinking of this like there's three legs to the stool. You need the vaccine, you need the syringe, and you need somebody to inject it. We also, it would seem, need authentication. What is the solution to this, bearing in mind that we're about to see the largest rollout of vaccination ever in history? Is there a solution standing by?

Steve Tallant:
There is. We have to look at authentic, safe, and connected products. A thing that is not replicable by counterfeiters and I believe is essential to protecting the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain is digital authentication like is possible with e-Fingerprinting.

BBC:
So what you end up being able to do is show a track of the medicine from its manufacturer to use, so it doesn't just disappear at the moment of manufacturer and then appear as you're delivering it. You'll be able to check it all the way.

Steve Tallant:
That is exactly right, and that's the vision. For example, I'm in the United States, and there is no mandate for it to be checked and tracked in that way today. That connected supply chain of where every movement of that medicine from manufacturing through the warehousing through the clinicians onto the patient. That's not mandated in the United States until at least 2023. But the technology exists today where we can accomplish this today.

BBC:
Steve Tallant on the authentication of the vaccine as it's rolled out, on the rollout of the vaccine, by the way. You're going to hear from Anthony Fauci on the program at the top of the next hour, so in about 20 minutes time, talking about that delivery issue and also the significance of the change in administration.

– end of transcript –

Final Thoughts:

This was a fantastic opportunity to raise awareness of the real need for authentication to be included in COVID-19 distribution planning.  At a minimum, we need to make everyone aware that these vaccines will only be available from licensed and trusted in-person facilities.  NO COVID-19 vaccine will be available in Internet-based pharmacies.

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