Fake shots and identity theft: COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan faces serious threats


LexisNexis risk expert says the coronavirus vaccine supply chain should be transparent and easy to verify to boost confidence among doctors and citizens.

Image: iStock.com/Udom Pinyo

Haywood Talcove, CEO of the government division of LexisNexis Risk Solutions, thinks that the hard part has just begun for the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. All the risks and opportunities for criminal behavior that citizens and governments face on a daily basis will intensify over the next year and focus on distribution of the vaccine, he says.

Talcove predicts that bad actors will disrupt the supply chain, manufacture fake shots, and even try to sell early access to the vaccine through identity theft and financial scams.

SEE: How cybercriminals are now exploiting COVID-19 vaccines (TechRepblic)  

Because a successful vaccine distribution plan will directly affect the American economy, that could be an incentive for state-sponsored criminals to tamper with vaccine shots to make them ineffective, Talcove said.

“The country that vaccinates its military and first responders first will have a will have a key economic advantage for a period of time,” he said. “I am most concerned about state-sponsored actors and terrorists who would use this as an economic lever.”

Talcove said that doctors and patients will need to have confidence in the quality of the vaccines. The six pharmaceutical companies working on a vaccine should make the supply chain as transparent and trackable as possible to preserve trust in the medications. 

“Patients should have access to that information because you really want to know that it is the real deal,” he said. “People could go and get the vaccine and think they’re immune and next thing they know they have COVID.”

SEE: How phishing attacks continue to exploit COVID-19 (TechRepublic)

Unfortunately, weaknesses along manufacturing supply chains have been on display over the last year as COVID-19 disrupted distribution of many consumer products. Many of those products did not require special storage such as refrigeration. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine must be kept very cold, which will put these same strains on the cold chain.

Military leaders have said that they will help with the logistics of distributing the COVID-19 vaccine across the US. Health experts don’t expect the military to give shots to individual Americans, however. One health expert at Northwestern University said that vaccine distribution is a “last-mile problem” that will rely on states and local health departments

On Dec. 9 the Department of Defense announced a plan to distribute the vaccine to military members. The DOD expects to get about 44,000 doses initially and those will go to healthcare providers and people in long-term care facilities first and then to people in critical national security jobs and finally healthy populations. These first shots will be given in 16 locations, including three overseas.

Haywood said that organized crime groups and state-sponsored criminals could create fake shots in addition to disrupting the supply chain.

 The World Health Organization estimates that counterfeits account for between 15% – 30% overall in developing countries. In industrialised countries, the figure is still around 1% in the legitimate supply chain which includes wholesalers, pharmacies, and hospitals.

The Pharmaceutical Security Institute tracks the fake medication problem. The most recent data  showed 5,081 pharmaceutical crime incidents in 2019. That is a 15% increase from the previous year and an all-time high. The institute also notes that incidents have gone up 69% over the last five years.

Medications to treat infections and depression are the most commonly counterfeited. About 13% of Americans or about 43 million people over 18 take an antidepressant, making that a lucrative choice for criminals. All 331 Americans will need the COVID-19, making fake vaccines an even bigger opportunity for counterfeiters.

More disinformation and identity theft

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a priority list for vaccine distribution with medical workers and older adults at the top of the list. This sense of scarcity could motivate bad actors to steal the identity of a first responder to get an early dose, Talcove said.

“The value of the product is worth way more than the cost to make it so you’re going to have schemes,” he said. “States will have to validate the identity of the individual getting the shot.”

Older adults can be more susceptible to financial scams and the vaccination campaign represents another opportunity for scammers to take advantage of the situation to make money.

Talcove said that states and the federal government should prosecute people who are caught conducting these scams and enforce existing laws to discourage these crimes.

“Why wouldn’t they go into a city and try to buy people’s lottery ticket so that they can sell it to other people so they can move up on the list?” he said.

Haywood said that the ongoing disinformation campaign around the coronavirus will develop new fronts as the vaccines become available. 

“We have to warn people, Don’t Google or go on Facebook to find a doctor who has extra doses,” he said. 

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