Fake news about the coronavirus is circulating as well as fake food supplements and the first counterfeit pharmaceuticals, which for example make claims of the sudden discovery of a miracle cure for the novel COVID-19 virus. They brazenly exploit the uncertainty and fear of many people in the current situation. But a much greater danger awaits us…
This forecast deals with the global problem of trade in counterfeit drugs: The marketability of the first coronavirus cures and vaccines, on which researchers and doctors are working intensively, will not only bring hope and healing, but will also open up an extremely profitable niche in the counterfeiting market.
Counterfeiters will soon find ways to imitate original coronavirus medicine and sell counterfeits both online and through the legal distribution chain. The following 3 facts support this forecast and more than clearly demonstrate the danger:
- Trade in counterfeit drugs has long been an established and highly professionalized organized crime, responsible for billions in losses and deaths.
- The fear and insecurity of people caused by the coronavirus pandemic is already being exploited by dubious online sellers.
- The first coronavirus-related counterfeits already became known: Counterfeit medical equipment is now among the top sellers online!
1. Trade in counterfeit drugs has long been an established and highly professionalized organized crime, responsible for billions in losses and deaths.
Trade in counterfeit drugs has become one of the biggest global problems: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 15 percent of all drugs worldwide are suspected to be fake, in Asia and Africa the figure is as high as 30 to 50 %. In German pharmacies and clinics, it is estimated that almost every 100th drug could be counterfeit.
In the EU member states, a considerable increase in trade in counterfeit drugs has been observed in recent years – despite strict regulations. In Europe alone, the pharmaceutical industry loses more than 10 billion euros a year, according to Europol and EUIPO (losses of retailers such as pharmacies not included):
For the criminals profits are much higher than in common drug trafficking. However, theft and resale of drugs and counterfeiting drugs are no longer the exclusive domain of dubious online providers. In German pharmacies, too, more and more stolen drugs, decanted, diluted and manipulated, are reappearing. In particular, more and more drugs are being stolen from Italian hospitals, such as the cancer drug Herceptin from Roche in 2014.
The manipulated Herceptin ampoules eventually turned up in German pharmacies. Counterfeiters were also able to smuggle these counterfeit drugs into Finland’s and Great Britain’s legal distribution channels seemingly without any difficulty. And this means huge sums were falling into the counterfeiters’ hands: 150 mg of the complex preparation against breast cancer is worth about 850 €!
The cancer drug has a biological half-life of 2-12 days and must be transported at a temperature of -20°C. It is rather inconceivable that the counterfeiters have paid attention to the correct storage temperature and corresponding transport conditions, so that the active ingredient contained will have lost most of its potency.
The counterfeiters have already built up a highly “professional” network – not only online – which seems to function smoothly. They also seem to be far ahead of the current, sometimes frighteningly outdated security systems of manufacturers and legal sellers. These experts will certainly not hold back in selling counterfeit coronavirus pharmaceuticals, because the estimated profit could exceed all previous prospects.
There is an enormous need for action at this point and it is precisely in relation to the coronavirus crisis that action must be taken NOW. Appropriate precautions must be taken as a matter of urgency even before the first drugs and vaccines against coronavirus will leave production, so that the counterfeiters cannot shamelessly exploit this situation and – in the worst case – lead to more fatal incidences.
In addition to the billions lost and the enrichment of the criminals at the expense of the health or even lives of victims, the companies’ reputation is affected as well. In the past, doctors and pharmacists often switched to preparations from other manufacturers as soon as cases of counterfeit drugs became known. The image damage caused by counterfeiters’ activity is clearly not the fault of these companies, but it takes years, perhaps decades, to rebuild their reputation usually with more investments in marketing and advertisements.
But in the meantime the counterfeiters do not sleep.
They will take one drug after the other for counterfeiting purposes and obviously it can hit the same company several times (and more certainly, it will, since counterfeiters will target them again and again thanks to their knowledge about how to steal products and reenter a company’s supply chain). Just take a look at the websites and landing pages of the big pharmaceutical companies (31.03.2020):
- Bayer is warning of possible medical counterfeits in the legal distribution chain (in addition to counterfeit drugs sold through unauthorised distribution channels):
“Warning about counterfeiting in the legal distribution chain:
Xarelto® 20 mg film-coated tablets in pack size N2 (28 tablets), lot BXHVHC3 in the Polish-Slovak style, are most likely counterfeit. If you have such a package, please contact us immediately.”
- Pfizer does not provide information on counterfeit drugs on its German website. But it is no secret that the popular blue Viagra pill – Pfizer’s successful recipe for treatment of erectile dysfunction – is the most faked drug to date. Or at least one of them… The German newspaper BILD expresses it – as always – in a particularly radically way: “Rat excrements and lead paint in fake Viagra pills! That’s how dangerous the plagiarisms are.” Unfortunately, in many people’s minds, Pfizer has become the one big pharmaceutical company that represents the negative side of the pharmaceutical industry as a whole… The well-known company is struggling with massive reputation damage. Therefore, it is sometimes completely overlooked when the company is doing something good.
- More current examples you will find among the Food and Drug Administration’s list: FDA alerts.
Both Bayer and Pfizer are on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus. Bayer is already warning about criminals who are taking advantage of the current situation and the fear of the public on its landing page for counterfeit drug warnings. Pfizer outlines a five-point plan to battle COVID-19, calling on the entire pharmaceutical industry to cooperate in battling coronavirus instead of continuing to compete with each other. Together with BioNTech, they are also developing a vaccine against COVID-19.
The counterfeiters are unlikely to hesitate to take advantage of this… They have already had great success with Pfizer products and can easily go for it again!
2. The fear and insecurity of people caused by the coronavirus pandemic is already being exploited by dubious online sellers.
Apart from false reports on the coronavirus pandemic, that are based on political or religious interests, fake news have one intention in particular: to promote sales. Warnings of dubious health promises are also prominent online but these are few compared to the vast amount of sellers that are trying to take advantage of people’s fears.
Among others there is the false claim, that the “active ingredient chlorine dioxide” helps against coronavirus. This is a conventional bleaching agent, the oral intake of which can be very dangerous and harmful to human health.
The coronavirus market is booming for food supplements as well, as people are insecure and are looking for complementary preparations to support their immune system in its defence against the virus. Vitamin preparations and other products are being counterfeited. The new Golisan blog entry is mainly about dietary supplements that are aggressively advertised with the keyword corona.
“Other products are also aggressively advertised with corona hashtags
… from sweaters and socks to handmade Disney articles on Etsy – on this platform, for example, products relating to coronavirus have already been removed. The major marketplaces Amazon and Ebay are taking action against the corona traders as well. Amazon has already blocked and deleted tens of thousands of corona articles and sellers, that are trying to make a profit out of the uncertainty of customers by advertising their products with usurious prices.”
But the petty criminals, from food supplement counterfeiters to sellers on Social Media, Etsy and others, are far from being the real danger. These examples only show that all over the world there is a great willingness to engage in dubious online trading and turn a profit out of the crisis.
The real danger, however, is that the big counterfeiters will soon take the initiative. And this is only half a prognosis, because it’s a fact, that they are already doing so:
3. The first coronavirus-related counterfeits already became known: Counterfeit medical equipment is now a top seller online!
Coronavirus has already opened up this very profitable niche in the counterfeiting market: Criminals use the high demand in hygiene products driven by the coronavirus outbreak as a new business opportunity. The trade in counterfeit protective masks and other medical accessories has taken on radical, hardly scalable proportions in the past few weeks. According to Europol, about 34,000 counterfeit surgical masks were recently seized during a worldwide police operation.
The counterfeiters also fake antiviral drugs, for which, however, no effect against coronavirus has been proven so far. Europol has already seized 4.4 million units of illicit pharmaceuticals worldwide and 2.500 links have been taken down (including websites, online marketplaces, adverts and social media).
But cybercrime doesn’t stop there. Many employees of large companies currently work on their less well-secured home computers and access employers’ networks from there. The lack of cybersecurity makes it much easier for counterfeiters to gain access to confidential data and valuable internal information during the coronavirus crisis, which can be misused in every conceivable way. This can be as easy as stealing the graphic designers’ coronavirus pharmaceutical packaging design.
The trade in counterfeit medical equipment not only demonstrates how fast counterfeiters can act, but also demonstrates the real danger: How many doctors in hospitals are unknowingly working with counterfeit masks that are permeable to the virus, at this very moment? How many medical assistants will infect themselves and others through fake equipment?
How many human lives are at stake?
What we need is a revolution in the fight against counterfeiting and an efficient solution that will enable us to detect counterfeit products such as counterfeit drugs, and, on the other hand, to verify the authenticity of original drugs and prevent major damage.
Arman Sarhaddar, CEO and Founder of Vault Security Systems AG and the new brand ivault, is sure that with the innovative application of blockchain we can drastically reduce the frightening numbers of counterfeit drugs. Many pharmaceutical companies already have QR codes on their packaging, but what is missing is the registration of their products in the blockchain, which offers the highest possible product safety and data security.