Freelance journalist Darren Taylor’s investigation about vaccination violations for Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, Little vials, big crime: Criminals primed for onslaught on Africa’s vaccines was published as the South African Financial Mail’s cover story in the issue of February 11 – February 17 2021. Bhekisisa, an independent media organisation specialising in health and social justice issues across Africa, also published it on its website on 11 February.
Taylor’s investigation detailed Africa’s vulnerability to the distribution of falsified and stolen vaccines. It included the South African example of two people who were arrested in November 2020 after a consignment of falsified COVID vaccines were discovered in a Germiston warehouse. Samples were sent to the National Control Laboratory in Bloemfontein – where they were later found to contain only water.
Trying to find out more details, Taylor had no luck communicating with the South African Police who were not only unhelpful, “but didn’t seem to know who was responsible for monitoring border imports,” he said.
However, Mlungisi Wondo, acting manager of South African Health Products Regulatory Authority’s (Sahpra’s) regulatory compliance unit, was helpful, and confirmed there are many loopholes at the South African borders, and said this news hits the headlines only when there is a big bust.
Taylor’s investigation included a statistic from a 2018 World Health Organisation (WHO) report that between 2013 and 2017, almost half of all substandard and falsified medicines found were in sub-Saharan Africa, “where regulations are weak, borders porous and the distribution of fake pharmaceutical products is often not considered a crime, despite the harm they do,” reported Taylor.
“There is a real risk that bogus vaccines will find their way into Africa and South Africa from India, Asia and China. Now that South Africa’s vaccination roll-out has begun, it’s fraught with challenges,” said Taylor.
By not embracing advanced technology, such as barcoding, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, African countries are at a disadvantage when it comes to verifying the authenticity of medications. “It takes between 8 – 10 years to set up barcoding system, and we’ve been caught napping,” said Taylor. “We just don’t have the technology to read these barcodes. This should have happened in 2017 when the system was first introduced.”
The outcome of this story remains iffy. South Africa, for one, will have to rely on its own security systems to verify vaccines. Wondo assured Taylor that “strict monitoring systems are in place at POEs, and a sample from every batch is sent to Bloemfontein for testing before distribution”.
Due to COVID restrictions, Taylor was unable to visit African countries personally. Andy Gray, Senior Lecturer of Pharmacology, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, helped to verify researched information.