People want to be sure that the vaccination jab they get for SARS-CoV-2 is legit, safe and tested. In a report for Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, Darren Taylor investigated the risk of counterfeit vaccines making their way to Africa.
This is Taylor’s final piece in a three-part series investigating COVID-related organised crime in Africa, supported by a grant from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC). The first was about barcoding vaccine imports and the second covered the risks of vaccine trafficking in South Africa. Crime and (no) punishment: Why Africa’s ports are vulnerable to counterfeit COVID vaccines, published on 18 February 2021, looks at the potential for the entry and distribution of bogus pandemic meds.
His investigation identified Mombasa, Kenya’s chief port and the fifth-busiest in Africa, as a problem. It is already top of the list of ports that are major conduits for falsified and substandard medicines.
Others of concern included Djibouti, which serves as Ethiopia’s port, because of its strategic position as an entry point of Chinese products into Africa.
He also quoted a UN Office on Drugs & Crime (Unodc) research brief that which identified the ports of Lomé (Togo) and Cotonou (Benin) “as key entry points for falsified and substandard pharmaceutical products related to the COVID-19 pandemic”. And Libya was noted as being the “epicentre” of trafficking in stolen pharmaceuticals in North Africa.
Taylor interviewed a multitude of experts. The big names included Interpol East Africa crime intelligence analyst John-Patrick Broome, Mark Micallef of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, crime analyst Maurice Ogbonnaya who is a former security official in Nigeria’s National Assembly, and Intellectual Property (IP) lawyers Marius Schneider and Nora Ho Tu Nam who act as advisers to some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.
Others Taylor spoke to on the ground include an unidentified Mombasa port official, a former trafficker in illicit medicines, police officers and customs officials.
He also assessed the role of legislation such as free trade zones, which are areas where goods are received and re-exported without the intervention of customs authorities. Experts have identified these zones as “arguably the biggest threat to the safety of vaccine supplies in Africa,” he wrote.
Taylor found that African port officials’ attitudes are “lax” and their investigative methodology is “behind the times”. “Medical regulations are low on the law agenda because of more pressing issues, like terrorism,” he said. “They just don’t seem to care that thousands are dying from illicit medicines, like fake malaria tablets, for example.”
Lack of legislation, namely a continental and global strategy to stop the spread of fake COVID vaccines, also plays its part.
And unregistered medicines are not considered a serious crime in Africa. Taylor’s investigation quoted IP lawyer Schneider saying, “If the past is anything to go by, punishment for people in Africa caught distributing falsified vaccines won’t be harsh because fake medicine is usually regarded as a violation of intellectual property rights, and not a crime, in many parts of the world, including Africa.”