The Committee of Experts on Minimising Public Health Risks Posed by Falsification of Medical Products and Similar Crimes (CD-P-PH/CMED) held its spring meeting via videoconference from 26 to 28 May 2020. Some 35 delegates from 24 countries participated. A dedicated discussion took place to exchange experience and information related to the COVID-19 crisis.
Delegates’ reports confirmed that criminals never miss an opportunity to exploit a crisis, and most countries had to counter efforts to turn a profit from shortages of medicines and medical devices. Many found arrangements to resolve such problems through regional co-operation or export regulations.
Cases of falsified protective materials and of internet sales of various cures for COVID-19 and of methods claiming to prevent infection by the virus were reported. One case concerned the abuse of a COVID-19 tracing application, which involved phone calls from fake contact tracers trying to get personal information.
All delegates observed an increase in illegal activities linked directly or indirectly to the pandemic. Illegal activities focused mostly on medical devices, rather than on medicines. One explanation for this is that the need for personal protection equipment and medical devices changes less in the short term, and is thus easier to exploit, whereas COVID-relevant medicines are a moving target and their choice depends on what is currently being developed or undergoing clinical trials.
Authorities did not report a significant increase in falsifications; problems mostly consisted in substandard or illegal/unauthorised products. This non-conformity could have been either accidental, where merchants or producers are simply unaware of the relevant standards and regulations to be respected, or part of an intentional scheme to profit from the crisis. Product advertising often made false claims, and falsified certificates were produced for customs controls. Delegates reported, for instance, falsified or substandard medical masks and the traffic of COVID-19 testing kits or ozone generators. All these can put people at risk.
Even if no crimes directly related to COVID-19 were detected, the crisis seems to have triggered a general increase in pharmaceutical crime. Additionally, it was noted that when substandard products were rejected in one country, they showed up later in other European markets. Most traffic takes place online via websites, social media or through e-mail.
Some countries reported problems with traditional Chinese medicines advertised as supposedly curing or preventing COVID-19 that are not authorised in Europe
Despite all this, some positive outcomes during the pandemic should be noted. Media coverage was often in line with health authorities’ recommendations, and such support for their work has helped alert the general public to the dangers of making online purchases from suspicious or unknown sources. Pharmaceutical crime in general has received increased attention as well, and in particular the risk of falsified medical devices. The crisis has also strengthened co-operation between the health and customs authorities in most countries.