As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to upend life as we know it, criminals are seizing on the opportunity by disrupting the provision of medical care through the selling fake products to the public, says European law enforcement agency – Europol.In a statement released last week, Europol Executive Director, Catherine de Bolle called for vigilance as organised crime groups continue to cash in on the fearful public and disregarding people’s wellbeing in the process.
Already, Botswana has recorded cases of illicit trade in counterfeit medical items including alcohol gels which are used for cleaning hands to protect from coronavirus, test kits, protective suits and face masks. All these items are in short supply globally because of the extremely high demand.A global operation to target trafficking counterfeit medicines in over 90 countries known as ‘Pangea XIII’, saw law enforcement, customs as well as health regulatory authorities take part in collective action against the illicit online sale of medicines and medical products. The operation resulted in more than 100 arrests, over P170 million in potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals being seized; over 30 organised crime groups dismantled and more than 35 000 unauthorised and counterfeit medical devices seized. Some of the counterfeit medicines comprised of antiviral drugs, antimalarials such as chloroquine and hydroxy chloroquine, which have been touted as vaccines for Covid-19.“The sale of counterfeit healthcare and sanitary products as well as personal protective equipment (PPE) and counterfeit pharmaceutical products has increased manifold since the outbreak of the crisis.
The advertisement and sale of these items take place both on and offline. Some developments, such as the distribution of fake corona home testing kits, are particularly worrying from a public health perspective,” says Europol.Europol warns that most of the medical staff being produced and sold by these organised criminals are not only substandard but are also likely to endanger the lives of those on the frontline against Covid-19.Apart from warning that the “situation also has implications on the internal security” Europol identified four channels through which organised criminals are conducting illegal activities: counterfeit and substandard goods, cybercrime, fraud, and organized property crime.A law enforcement agent who spoke to this publication on condition of anonymity said that criminals are manufacturing and selling high-demand products like masks or medicine.In their recently released March report entitled “Pandemic profiteering how criminals exploit the COVID-19 crisis”, Europol says “criminals have quickly seized the opportunities to exploit the crisis by adapting their modes of operation or developing new criminal activities.
Organised crime groups are notoriously flexible and adaptable and their capacity to exploit this crisis means we need to be constantly vigilant and prepared.”Furthermore they say it is highly likely that criminal gangs will use shortages in the supply of some medical products to gradually provide counterfeit alternatives both on and offline. Counterfeit medicines usually contain the wrong amount of active ingredients and the medicines may also have been stolen, stored in a bad place or may have expired. This means they could be ineffective or contaminated.Up to date, Botswana has not recorded any single case of Coronavirus. COVID-19, a novel respiratory virus causes mild or moderate symptoms such as fever, high temperature or coughing for two to three weeks. But it can be fatal for older people whose immune system is a bit weak.