Increased trafficking in falsified medical products due to COVID-19, says UNODC research


Vienna (Austria), 8 July - 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, according to research published today by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The virus has further highlighted the shortcomings in regulatory and legal frameworks aimed at preventing the manufacture and trafficking of such products, the “COVID-19-related Trafficking of Medical Products as a Threat to Public Health” research brief points out.

“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 UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly. “Transnational organized crime groups take advantage of gaps in national regulation and oversight to peddle substandard and falsified medical products. 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.”  

Organized criminal groups have exploited uncertainties surrounding the virus by filling the gap in the demand for medical products that are in short supply with sub-standard and falsified products. 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 illicit events, such as 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 a consignment of face masks worth €15 million through a cloned website of an apparently legitimate company in Spain. The emergence of the pandemic has also seen data-compromise frauds, including phishing, scamming and business email compromise, or the manipulation of corporate websites, convincing purchasers that the source is genuine.

UNODC’s research also predicts that the behaviour of organized criminal groups will gradually change over the course of the pandemic, particularly when a vaccine is developed and when these groups will likely shift their focus from trafficking in PPE to trafficking in the vaccine. 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.

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. 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.


UNODC´s Research Brief on “COVID-19-related Trafficking of Medical Products as a Threat to Public Health” covers the COVID-19-related trafficking of substandard and falsified medical products, including personal protective equipment intended for medical purposes, as a threat to public health. It also gives examples of several notable cases involving fraud and seizures of medical products in relation to COVID-19.