Falsified medicines in the wake of COVID-19: an emerging threat for security and public health in Nigeria

24 July 2020 - Under a global operation conducted in March 2020, INTERPOL reported worldwide seizures of falsified medical products related to COVID-19, including 34,000 counterfeit and substandard face masks, worth 14 million USD. Compared to an earlier operation in 2018, Interpol reported an increase of about 18% in seizures of unauthorized antiviral medication and a more than 100% increase in seizures of unauthorized chloroquine (an antimalarial), indicating a surge in substandard and falsified medical products and unauthorized medication circulating in the market that likely to be connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Globally, organized criminal groups have adjusted to the opportunities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic to exploit the vulnerabilities and gaps existing in health and criminal justice systems. A recent UNODC research report “COVID-19-related Trafficking of Medical Products as a Threat to Public Health” shows that the sudden increase in demand for medical products to address the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an expansion in the trafficking of substandard and falsified products. Moreover, the pandemic has also highlighted the risks of fraud in the context of public health procurement processes, including advance fee fraud schemes, delivery of sub-standard goods or the diversion of medical equipment and medicines.

As early as 2013, UNODC in its Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment for West Africa had observed: “The importation of fraudulent essential medications does not have this kind of dramatic impact [like the trafficking of illegal firearms or drugs]. The profits appear to be too diffuse to make corrupt officials into millionaires, and are too small to be of much interest to non-state armed groups. Rather, the effect is subtler, almost impossible to measure. The sick get sicker and resistant strains of disease evolve that won’t make headlines until it is too late. In terms of quality of life for the people of West Africa, however, it would be difficult to imagine an issue of greater importance. […..] In the richer parts of the world, it is taken for granted that medicines contain what they say they contain. In West Africa, consumers cannot make this assumption. Even doctors and pharmacists cannot know for sure that the drugs they are administering will do what they intend them to do.”

Nigeria continues to be highly dependent on imported medicines, some reports suggesting 70% of medicines and 99% of medical devices and equipment in Nigeria are brought from abroad, mostly from China and India. The current situation is likely to place major strain on Nigeria’s medical supply chain. As a consequence, people will seek cheap but dangerous alternatives to medicines and medical supplies. In April and May alone, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) seized 36 falsified medicines and medical products, including tramadol, codeine as well as some substandard medicine related to COVID-19 such as chloroquine and hand sanitizers.

In order to prevent distribution of falsified and substandard medicines and medical products, NAFDAC intensified its surveillance, issued warnings to consumers and retailers and increased its capacity to carry out standardization tests on face masks, test kits and other COVID-19 related items.

Globally, the market for fake, substandard and counterfeit medicine is estimated to be worth between 65 and 200 billion dollars each year, making it a very lucrative criminal enterprise. Strengthening legal frameworks and penalties, and a more harmonized global approach to the criminalization of the manufacture and trafficking of falsified medical products are crucial. At the same time preventing, detecting, and responding to medical product-related crime will require that people working in the medical product sector acquire new or additional skills.

Already in 2011, the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice expressed its concern on the involvement of organized crime groups in the trafficking of fraudulent medicines and called on UNODC, as the guardian of the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, to assist States in enhancing knowledge concerning illicit supply chain and good practices in tackling the production, trafficking and distribution of falsified medical products. In response to this mandate and after extensive research and expert consultations, UNODC launched in 2019 a Guide to Combat Crime related to Falsified Medical Products.

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