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Illegal trade in fake or faulty COVID-19 products booming, new UN research reveals

Health workers in Madagascar test citizens for COVID-19.
World Bank/Henitsoa Rafalia
Health workers in Madagascar test citizens for COVID-19.

Illegal trade in fake or faulty COVID-19 products booming, new UN research reveals


A surge in demand for medical products to combat COVID-19 has led to a jump in the trafficking of substandard and faulty merchandise, according to new UN research published on Wednesday.


“Health and lives are at risk with criminals exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to cash in on public anxiety and increased demand for PPE and medications”, said Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

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Among its countless other impacts, the coronavirus has further highlighted the shortcomings in regulatory and legal frameworks aimed at preventing the manufacturing and selling of these products, points out the UNODC research brief, entitled “COVID-19-related Trafficking of Medical Products as a Threat to Public Health”. 

Preying on vulnerabilities

The research reveals that criminal gangs are exploiting both the uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus along with inconsistencies in national regulation regimens.

“Transnational organized crime groups take advantage of gaps in national regulation and oversight to peddle substandard and falsified medical product”, explained the UN crime-fighting chief.

The falsification of medical products bears significant risks for public health as products may not properly treat the disease and may facilitate the development of drug resistance.

Criminal groups have also quickly adjusted to the opportunities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic to exploit the vulnerabilities and gaps in the health and criminal justice systems. 

Evidence shows that fraud, scams and seizures, involving the manufacture and trafficking of substandard and falsified medical products, have followed the spread of the virus.

In one case, German health authorities contracted two sales companies in Switzerland and Germany to procure €15 million worth of face masks through a cloned website of an apparently legitimate company in Spain. 

“We need to help countries increase cooperation to close gaps, build law enforcement and criminal justice capacity, and drive public awareness to keep people safe”, Ms. Waly upheld.

Harmonized global approach needed

The pandemic has also highlighted a boom in data-based scams – including phishing, and business email attacks – or the creation of fake corporate websites to fool purchasers.

UNODC’s research also predicts that the behaviour of organized criminal groups will gradually change over the course of the pandemic.

When a vaccine is developed, it will likely lead to a shift in focus away from PPE smuggling to trafficking in the vaccine.

Moreover, cyberattacks on critical infrastructure involved in addressing the pandemic are also likely to continue in the form of online scams aimed at health procurement authorities, according to the research.

Strengthening legal frameworks and penalties, and a more harmonized global approach to the criminalization of the manufacture and trafficking of falsified medical products is crucial, as only a common approach will enable effective responses to crimes impacting individuals and public health, the UNODC brief maintains.

At the same time however, preventing, detecting, and responding to medical product-related crime will require people who work in the medical product sector to acquire new or additional skills.

Examples worldwide of COVID-19 scams

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said it took down more than 2,000 online coronavirus scams in March alone, which included 471 fake online shops selling fraudulent COVID-19-related items.

Police in France removed 70 fraudulent websites claiming to sell chloroquine in April.

COVID-19-related scams in the USA amounted to approximately US$13.4 million in fraud, from the beginning of January to mid-April this year, and have affected more than 18,000 citizens.

In the first four months of 2020, 1,541 cyberattacks related to COVID-19 were detected in the United Arab Emirates including 775 malware threats, 621 email spam attacks and 145 URL attacks.

A seizure of 3,300 thermometers was reported in Thailand , after being trafficked through three other countries and a report of thermometers which do not conform with EU regulations was also noted in Italy.

Organized criminal groups in the Western Balkans are believed to be involved in money laundering and investing their illicit gains in the production and trafficking of falsified medical products and protective clothing.

There have been COVID-19-related reports of substandard and falsified ventilators in Russia, where a fraud enquiry has begun, as well as in the UK, where ventilators supplied were substandard and potentially dangerous. The supply of substandard ventilators was also reported in Bosnia and Herzegovina.