On Friday, March 6, 2020, a day after South Africa registered its first confirmed case of covid-19 , and a few weeks after Egypt became, on February 14, the first African country to register an infection , the Ugandan police detained a traditional healer and his daughter in a village 120 kilometers east of Kampala.
Police spokesman Fred Enang told the Ugandan newspaper New Vision : “They visited several families (…) telling them that they had discovered a vaccine against the disease … The victims of fraud bought the vaccine at a price negotiated with the seller before putting it on” .
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A much more sinister incident occurred on 19 November at a warehouse in Germiston, South Africa, according to Mlunghisi Wondo, acting director of the regulatory compliance unit at the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority ( Sahprafor its acronym in English). Wondo says that the police followed a “suspicious shipment” from OR Tambo airport to a building east of Johannesburg.
After opening “a lot of boxes”, they asked the Sahpra for help. “Our agents arrived there and saw pre-loaded syringes, and with labels written in Chinese … The two people who were at the scene, the owner of the warehouse and the Chinese owner of the shipment, were arrested,” says Wondo.
“We had clear indications that the contents of the boxes were going to be sold as real covid-19 vaccines.” Days later, two other Chinese nationals were arrested. Currently, the four (three Chinese and one Zambian, owner of the warehouse) are free on bail, and the police have not been able to clarify when charges will be brought against them.
According to Interpol, the fake vaccines had been promoted on a Chinese social network, WeChat, and had been imported from Singapore as “cosmetic injections.” Wondo says that the police, in collaboration with the Sahpra, “are still trying to find out if units have been distributed in the country. The risk now is that there are people who are injected with these [fake] vaccines; we do not know what is in them, because they are still being analyzed in the National Control Laboratory, in Bloemfontain ”.
On January 15, the Nigerian National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (Nafdac) acknowledged that they are aware that false versions are circulating in the country . The general director of the agency, Mojisola Adeyeye, explained in a press conference : “The Nafdac asks citizens to be vigilant. The agency has not approved any vaccine against covid. The fake doses… could kill. ”
And on January 31, a certain “Dr. H. Losho de Lagos”, who also advertises erotic toys, clothes and shoes, published the following tweet : “If you are interested in two doses of the covid vaccine at 50,000 each, contact with @ad_de_moles . AstraZeneca. It arrives in two weeks. We give you a card ”.
These cases show that Africa is fertile ground for the distribution of counterfeit and stolen vaccines. And with the emergence of new variants of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes covid-19), such as 501Y.V2, first identified in South Africa , immunizations against the new coronavirus will become a highly coveted commodity. , because at least for the moment those variants have been shown to be more infectious than the original form of the virus.
Some may also be able to escape the immunity induced by current vaccines, which increases fear – and despair – to be protected against these variants by new ones adjusted and specific for them.
Statistics also show that the continent is extremely vulnerable to vaccine-related crime: A report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018 stated that between 2013 and 2017 almost half of counterfeit or poor-quality medicines they had been found in sub-Saharan Africa, where regulations are weak, borders are porous, and the distribution of counterfeit pharmaceuticals is often not considered a crime, despite the damage they cause.
Between 2013 and 2017, almost half of the counterfeit or poor-quality medicines were found in sub-Saharan Africa
“We have found very toxic substances in counterfeit drugs. To begin with, they do not cure, but you also see cases of people who die from the product they have taken “, says Cyntia Genolet, deputy director of the African section at the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA for its acronym in English).
The organization represents the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, including most of those that are manufacturing covid-19 vaccines.
The WHO report states that counterfeit malaria drugs alone cause up to 158,000 deaths a year in sub-Saharan Africa, and that the global market for fake or poor-quality drugs could amount to almost € 170 billion, a 10-15 % of the total pharmaceutical market.
Unprepared for the counterfeit scam
In South Africa, one of the African countries most affected by the pandemic, the Department of Health states that at least 67% of a population of approximately 60 million people must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.
The immunization campaign in the country, which should have started with the option of AstraZeneca, was temporarily suspended in early February , after having new preliminary data on the low efficacy of said vaccine in mild or severe cases of covid-19 caused by the new 501Y.V2 variant.
The Department of Health announced that the country would carry out, instead of such a massive campaign, an application study to compare the efficacy of three vaccines – Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and possibly AstraZeneca – against serious cases of covid-19 caused by the new variant. Severe cases of the virus lead to hospitalizations and deaths, and therefore protection against these is an important function of vaccines during the pandemic.
Days before the vaccination campaign in the country began, in mid-March, it was expected to be massive and full of challenges. “It will be on a large scale, and of unusual importance and complexity. Will there be crimes related to it? Probably.
But I think we have bigger problems, like seeing how we are going to get the vaccine into the arms of millions of people, ”said Salim Abdool Karim, epidemiologist and co-chair of the scientific committee of ministerial advisory on covid-19 in South Africa at the time.
Abdool Karim, who also heads the HIV research organization, the Center for AIDS Research Program, ( Caprisa ) adds: “The system that will regulate vaccines seems very robust; they say the security around vaccines will be strong. ”
But never as much as in Europe or the United States, where almost all entities involved in the distribution of roads, from airports to transport companies and manufacturers, have created work teams to ensure their safety.
Companies have background checks on their staff; all vaccine boxes, which are kept in secret locations, carry GPS location detectors; some vials contain black-light verification technology (markers that are visible only using ultraviolet-emitting equipment) to prevent counterfeiting, and some companies are making fake shipments to mislead criminals.
But, for the most part, the African authorities, immersed in the negotiations to obtain the doses and prepare for the logistical nightmare of getting them to the population through huge territories and with transport routes in poor conditions, sometimes non-existent, do not they are completely unprepared to protect these shipments, according to numerous sources interviewed, including police, criminal intelligence, customs and border officials, government officials and criminologists.
According to the most recent Worldometers population registration mechanism , the African continent has almost 1.4 billion inhabitants. In an analysis published at the end of November last year, the WHO warned that “Africa is far from being prepared for the largest immunization campaign ever undertaken on the continent .”
The analysis calculated that, based on its own reports provided by all countries, Africa had an average score of 33% of readiness for the vaccination campaign against COVID-19, well below the reference point of 80% recommended by the organization .
The WHO stated that less than half of Africa has established what are the “priority populations” for vaccination and what are the plans to reach these populations, and only 44% have established “coordination structures”. According to the report, only 24% had “adequate funding and resource plans,” a discreet 17% had data collection and tracking tools ready, and only 12% had plans to communicate with communities to “establish trust. and increase the demand for immunization ”.
Maurice Ogbonnaya, a criminologist and former security analyst at the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies of the Nigerian National Assembly, based in Abuja, says that it is precisely these shortcomings, “loopholes” and disorganization that could allow groups of Organized crime (GDO) introduce counterfeit vaccines into supply chains and also steal real ones.
Why is Africa ripe for a black market in anticovid vaccines?
Ruona Meyer , inspired by a sister addicted to codeine – a drug that is marketed illegally in Nigeria – spent more than a year infiltrating, disguised as a buyer, in gangs that traffic illegal drugs in West Africa. His input, captured in the 2018 Grammy-winning documentary Sweet Codeine , led to several arrests and sentences, including that of a pharmaceutical company executive.
“In Africa we have all the necessary elements for a black market for vaccines to flourish,” says Meyer. “Lack of resources, logistics and technical capacity will make mass immunization campaigns incredibly long.
That gives organized crime the time and space to strategize, adapt to security measures and introduce their products into supply chains. Poverty and official corruption, which are unfortunately widespread in Africa, make their work much easier ”.