The Risks of Criminal Activity in Times of COVID-19 Vaccine Nationalism

The Risks of Criminal Activity in Times of COVID-19 Vaccine Nationalism

The slow and unequal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has not only hampered the global economic recovery from the pandemic. In lower and middle-income countries, the scarcity of vaccine supply has opened up opportunities for organized criminal groups to orchestrate lucrative activities thus endangering the health of vulnerable populations and undermining public trust in state institutions. As the tendency of slow vaccine rollouts is set to continue, the security situation in developing countries is likely to deteriorate.

High Expectations, Low Results

More than a year after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global health emergency, countries around the world have started mass vaccination programs with the hope of returning back to normality. On 1 March 2021, the COVAX Global Vaccines Facility delivered the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Hence marking the start of the vaccination campaigns on the African continent.

Vaccine nationalism, however, has created a gap between high expectations and reality. The WHO has vowed for a ‘fair and equitable’ access for every country through its COVAX Facility. As of March 2021, 10 countries have administered 75 percent of all COVID-19 vaccines and more than 130 countries are still in the queue for receiving their first batch of vaccine supplies.

High Profits, Low Risks

In the meantime, organized criminal groups have exploited the situation by profiteering from the slow vaccine rollouts and their uncoordinated distribution. Law enforcement agencies in Europe have already warned of vaccine-related crime during the pandemic. Diversion and theft of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the production of counterfeits, are considered ‘low-risk, high-profit’ activities for criminal groups.

For lower-income countries, the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines brings hope and anticipation. For criminals, it brings profit. In developing regions, the presence of weak health systems, corrupted government officials and lack of transport infrastructure is likely to increase the risk of vaccine-related crime and facilitate illicit activities to an extent far greater than that in Europe and North America.

Risk of Corruption

In lower and middle-income countries – where the abuse of power for private gains has been present long before the COVID-19 outbreak – criminal activity has increased as a natural outcome of the delayed vaccination program. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has warned of corruption risks related to the distribution of vaccines, including nepotism, favoritism, bribery and embezzlement.

Such risk usually occurs when the demand is high and the supplies are limited. In Peru, high-ranking officials and their families were secretly inoculated with 3,200 doses of Sinopharm vaccines. In Argentina, the former health minister authorized vaccines for politicians and business leaders outside the priority groups.

Another risk to the safety of vaccine supply chains in developing countries is the emergence of free trade zones (FTZs) as physical locations for vaccine-related criminal activity. The port of Mombasa, Kenya’s busiest chief port, has been identified by law enforcement in East Africa as a potential haven for the shipment of falsified and substandard COVID-19 vaccines.

The lack of police regulations and the recent reduction in inspection regimes at the port of Mombasa make it especially vulnerable to corruption. As the COVAX Facility is likely to ship doses of COVID-19 vaccines to African free trade zones, the high risk of abuse by criminal groups might threaten the safety of vaccine supplies in the continent.

Risk to Public Health

The WHO has estimated that in low and lower middle-income countries, one in ten medical products are either substandard or fake. In Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, cargo theft is a common threat to public health. The intercepted vaccines are often kept in poor storage conditions, which could lead to their quick degradation. As the shortage of COVID-19 vaccines in the region increases, so will the availability of stolen, counterfeit or diverted ones. Such products are at best ineffective and at worst toxic or damaging to one’s health.

The Health Ministry of Uganda has warned of brokers trying to entice officials into buying cheaper vaccines that have not been approved for use by the WHO. Since the country is lacking clear regulatory processes for importers, the distribution of falsified vaccines is already threatening the health of vulnerable populations.

The Patent Waiver: Panacea or Catalyst for Organized Crime?

Recent discussions on the suspension of intellectual property rights for the manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines have put at the forefront various logistical obstacles, ranging from the lack of technological capabilities to the shortage of vaccine ingredients.

Although waiving intellectual property protections might boost the availability of vaccines in developing countries and put an end to vaccine nationalism, the prospects of a patent waiver resulting in the reduction of crime are rather bleak. Pfizer, one of the leading COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers, has warned that a waiver of patents could harm vaccine supply by inviting less safe copycat medicines and exposing patients to ‘dangerous products’.

The complex nature of vaccine manufacturing might create incentives for states lacking production capacity to rely on parallel importation, meaning the purchasing of medical products at lower prices from countries other than the manufacturing one. Albeit legitimate and often beneficial, parallel importing is also linked to the introduction of counterfeit products, pirated goods and diverted medications. 

Another potential risk is the anticipated rise in vaccine-themed phishing campaigns, driven by the widespread production of vaccines. The patent waiver therefore might end up serving as an accelerator of pharmaceutical crime and cybercrime in an already fragile environment.

Long-term Implications: Vaccines, Crime and Instability

Organized crime thrives on instability. In times of weakened state presence and vaccine supply-and-demand disequilibrium, criminal gangs and cartels have altered their behavior to expand control and become de facto proto-state entities.

The vaccine-crime-instability nexus is particularly notable in the case of Brazil. The scarcity of COVID-19 vaccines has caused social unrest and increased homicide and violence rates in the country. Seizing the momentum to gain support and legitimacy, drug trafficking groups have started offering financial aid in addition to enforcing social distancing measures. Added to that is the incentive of the Brazilian government to collaborate with criminal groups in suppressing recent instances of social unrest sparked by the slow vaccination in the country.

As the shortage of COVID-19 vaccines continues, so will the burgeoning influence of criminal groups in developing countries. Major pandemics in the past have led to a vicious cycle of social unrest, economic despair and increased inequality. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to reduce output and trigger instability in the long term. This will very likely perpetuate opportunities for criminals to offer services to the detriment of public health. Above all, the delay in COVID-19 vaccine distribution has set the scene for crime and disorder to prevail time and again in an environment of scarcity and desperation.

Categories: International, Security

About Author