The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has warned that illegal trade in fake or faulty COVID-19-related products is booming amid a surge in demand.
The warning came in a research brief entitled, “COVID-19-related Trafficking of Medical Products as a Threat to Public Health”, released by UNIDC last week.
According to the agency, a rise in demand for medical products related to the Coronavirus has triggered a jump in trafficking of substandard and faulty merchandise.
“Health and lives are at risk with criminals exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to cash in on public anxiety and increased demand for PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and medications,” said Ghada Waly, Executive Director of UNODC.
The research noted that the pandemic had further underscored the gaps in regulatory and legal frameworks aimed at checking the manufacturing and supply of those products.
It disclosed that criminals are “exploiting both the uncertainties surrounding the Coronavirus along with inconsistencies in national regulation regimens.
“Transnational organised crime groups take advantage of gaps in national regulation and oversight to peddle substandard and falsified medical products,” noted Waly.
The agency said product falsification posed significant risks for public health as it might render the products ineffective or facilitate the development of drug resistance.
Criminal groups have also quickly adjusted to the opportunities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic to exploit the vulnerabilities and gaps in the health and criminal justice systems, according to the research.
It said evidence showed that “fraud, scams and seizures, involving the manufacture and trafficking of substandard and falsified medical products, have followed the spread of the virus”.
For instance, the research disclosed that German health authorities contracted two sales companies in Switzerland and Germany to procure 15 million euro (N6,5 billion) worth of face masks through a cloned website of an apparently legitimate company in Spain.
“We need to help countries increase cooperation to close gaps, build law enforcement and criminal justice capacity, and drive public awareness to keep people safe,” Waly said.
UNIDC noted that the pandemic had also highlighted a boom in data-based scams, including phishing and business email attacks, or the creation of fake corporate websites to fool buyers,
It predicted that the behaviour of organised criminal groups would gradually change over the course of the pandemic.
“When a vaccine is developed, it will likely lead to a shift in focus away from PPE smuggling to trafficking in the vaccine,” it said.