INTERPOL adds its weight to the risks of the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine

It comes as no surprise that hot on the heels of the announcement that the first COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed that warnings are being given of the threat of criminal intervention in the supply chain. INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organisation has issued a global alert (known as an Orange Notice) across its 194 member countries to prepare for organised crime networks to ramp up their activities.

The INTERPOL Orange Notice doesn’t focus on any specific threat but it has become clear over the last nine months that nefarious activity online has reached almost record levels. The fear, uncertainty and doubt that COVID-19 has spread globally has been the perfect breading ground for criminal activity, or as INTERPOL refer to it, “predatory criminal behaviour”.

There have been hundreds of fake websites identified and fortunately taken offline already but the number of domain names that are registered either infringing on the intellectual property of legitimate companies involved in finding a vaccine or drugs to treat the virus continues to cause headaches to brand holders and domain registrars alike.

These websites not offer offer false hope to those most vulnerable but also fake products. If an unsuspecting consumer is lucky, they may only lose some of their personal details. The black market value of that pales into insignificance of financial and healthcare data for an individual – a recent article by Trustwave suggests that a healthcare record can fetch up to $250, whilst financial details are around $4.50. Capturing that type of data is incredibly lucrative to criminals, which is why there has been an increase in COVID-related phishing attacks.

However, it is the physical vaccine that is now firmly in the sights of criminal gangs. “It is the equivalent of liquid gold to organised crime networks.”, was a previous comment from INTERPOL when considering the challenges faced by the supply chain in distributing the vaccine. If any were to fall into the wrong hands, there is no end to the issues that could raise. Tampering with the vaccine in a similar way to a drug cartel “cuts” its product to sell more of it is a major concern – the problem of “fake” drugs is one that blights every country in the world today.

It is hard for many of us to understand what major problems this will cause. If a criminal gang or individual gets hold of the legitimate vaccine in transit they will be able to relatively easily replicate the packaging, labelling and vials, giving it immediate authenticity. They will quickly be able to water down the vaccine without interfering with the authentic look. However, the vaccine will be completely ineffective should it be administered BUT the patient will not know that and could still become infected and be infectious without knowing it.

Genuine online pharmacies would not be offering any COVID-19 related vaccines or medicines for sale. INTERPOL’s Cybercrime Unit has examined around 3,000 online pharmacy websites, of which approximately 1,700 were harbingers of malware, phishing and botnets. That isn’t the remedy you want to be downloading onto your digital devices.

The thought of returning to a more normal life is appealing to us all but we need to also be patient. The manufacture, distribution and delivery of the vaccine isn’t an overnight job. The overwhelming demand for such a scarce product creates the ideal market conditions for criminals – we can help by being vigilant and reporting any illicit activity to the authorities.

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