Growing Underground Vaccine Market

The paucity of vaccines, vaccine hesitancy, and the mutating variants of the COVID 19 virus has been in the spotlight for wreaking the healthcare infrastructure, human life, and economy. With the dangers of a third wave looming, the only hope for us all is large-scale vaccination drives. While India now has many vaccines approved for emergency use and the vaccination drive is picking speed, there is a threat-fake vaccine.

People are desperate to go to work, open the economy, and carry on. With the central government streamlining procuring and administering vaccines, many are keen to get the jabs. The authorities have permitted offices and housing societies to tie up with hospitals to inoculate employees and residents and boost the vaccination drive. India has been vaccinating daily in numbers equivalent to the entire population of Poland. So, relying only on hospitals for arranging vaccine camps is restrictive. So the government has laid out strict guidelines under which housing societies and organizations can tie up with hospitals in the vicinity to administer the jabs within society and office premises. 

But do SOPs and policies do enough to deter opportunists and counterfeiters?

‘2000 people were victims of a fake vaccination drive in Mumbai’

‘MP Mimi Chakraborty of the Trinamool Congress falls ill, days after falling prey to the fake vaccination drive at Kolkata’

‘Unauthorised vaccination drives were conducted at nine locations across Mumbai, which was brought to notice by Kandivli’s Hiranandani Heritage Society residents.'

While it is refreshing to see news headlines showing a gradual pick-up in the pace of vaccination, the parallel rise in the number of fake vaccine drives is concerning. In response to this alarming trend, the authorities have now come up with measures to verify the authenticity of the vaccine administrators. In many cities, the municipal corporation will now check the CoWIN registration of all private Covid 19 vaccine centers that arrange vaccination drives for housing societies and corporates. Civic bodies have appointed nodal officers to tackle the menace of fake covid vaccines. Vigilant citizens are now doing better background checks of distributors and arrangers of the Covid vaccine. While there is a genuine intent and sincere effort to protect people from counterfeit Covid vaccines, enforcing guidelines and protocols have limitations. Also, punitive actions do little to undo the damage spurious and fake Covid vaccines can cause.

Why are counterfeit vaccines so prevalent, and how can they be stopped?

As an expert in anti-counterfeit technology, the founder of ACVISS technology, Vikas Jain, opines, ‘when vaccination slots are closing in fast, people get desperate. In such a scenario, the counterfeit market is bound to raise its deathly head. Stringent guidelines and vigilance are useful to catch culprits in hindsight. Often, when we rely solely on law enforcement, the crime has already happened, with dangerous consequences. In Covid vaccines, we need to understand the complex supply-chain, storage, and vaccine wastage issues associated with it. The vaccines change many hands, and a single vaccination drive involves multiple stakeholders. 

As anti-counterfeit technology providers, what concerns us most is that it is difficult for authorities to verify the source of a single vial of Covid vaccine. In the case of the fake vaccine racket at Kandivli’s Hiranandani Heritage Society in Mumbai, we can still not understand from where the vaccines originated. The authorities are now requesting the manufacturers, i.e., SII, to authenticate the vials and provide data.’ Commenting on the complexity of vaccination drives, Vikas further says, ‘right from hospitals, doctors to distributors, the scale of stakeholders makes it difficult to prevent unauthorized vaccination drives. Organizers can offer jabs that are past their expiry date.

Some may think of hoarding vaccines to sell them in the black market. Mixing the Covid 19 vaccine vials with substandard, substitute, and spurious products can also be a threat to the overall efficacy of the vaccination drive.” The CoWIN app maintains a registry of citizens who have been vaccinated and the details of vaccination centers. Still, it is not immune to threats of the dark web. One way to identify a fake jab post-administration is to check the certification on CoWIN app. Victims have not got a Covid vaccination certificate through the app for most counterfeit and unauthorized vaccination drives. “Yet, it is not a sure-shot way to detect fake vaccines. The dark web is now filled with fake Covid vaccination certificates”, warns Vikas. Commenting on the solace anti-counterfeit technology can bring to the menace of fake vaccines, Vikas says, “tracking and tracing the journey of every vial of the vaccine. It is important to safeguard the supply chain. Also, user-friendly anti-counterfeit technology like 2D codes, 3D codes, non-human readable technology, serialization, blockchain, ensures that the buyers and administrators can authenticate the vial before administering.”

Human depravity knows no bounds. But thankfully, the wonders of technology are just as limitless. Harnessing anti-counterfeit technology is a powerful way to detect, deter and destroy the market for fake covid vaccines.