COVID-19 vaccines and the threat of illicit trade

Banner image: Shutterstock/YuriKara

Like Comment

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders —from around the world and all parts of society— address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

Join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts to share your own stories, ideas and expertise in the comments.


Vaccines are playing a central role in containing the COVID-19 pandemic and consequently in saving lives, protecting health care systems and helping to restore the economy. There are huge expectations from governments and the public alike regarding the effective distribution of the vaccines and vaccination programmes.

To ensure the process is secure, vaccine distribution is being controlled by national governments; there is no COVID-19 vaccine available that an individual could freely purchase on the market. Furthermore, the number of people being vaccinated is unprecedented, and the vaccination process around the world will be spread over many months. It is important to emphasize that vaccine equity is both fair and efficient, as no one will be safe until everyone is safe. Nevertheless, it seems unavoidable that there will be some unmet demand on the market. Furthermore, logistical complexities and risks can make the situation even more difficult.

National authorities are aware of the unprecedented scale of the vaccine challenge and that there are potential risks. To prevent illicit trade, governments and industry continue to work on likely scenarios and to monitor distribution processes, bottlenecks and screening delays.

Read more on the Forum Network: "Closing vaccine borders provide a false sense of security. Enabling global flows allows vaccine supply chains to deliver more vaccines to all" by Prashant Yadav, Professor, INSAED & Jan C. Fransoo, Professor, Tilburg University

Read more on the Forum Network: "Closing vaccine borders provide a false sense of security. Enabling global flows allows vaccine supply chains to deliver more vaccines to all" by Prashant Yadav, Professor, INSAED & Jan C. Fransoo, Professor, Tilburg UniversityRead more on the Forum Network: "Closing vaccine borders provide a false sense of security. Enabling global flows allows vaccine supply chains to deliver more vaccines to all" by Prashant Yadav, Professor, INSAED & Jan C. Fransoo, Professor, Tilburg University

For criminals, the COVID-19 crisis has been an unprecedented opportunity for profits. Changing enforcement priorities, closures of stores, unsatisfied demand, distorted supply chains and spiking demand for some products (e.g. pharmaceuticals) have created conditions in which criminal networks thrive. Illicit offers of a COVID-19 vaccine can be found on the dark web, with prices starting at USD 500 for single jab. A shipment with thousands of multidose vials could thus be worth more than USD 100 million to criminals.

There are three areas of particular concern for illicit trade in COVID-19 vaccines:

  • Theft and diversion of vaccines
  • Logistical transportation risks
  • Misuse of the online environment

Find out more about the OECD Task Force on Countering Illicit Trade to better understand the market vulnerabilities exploited and created by illicit trade

In the past, criminals have often broken into legitimate supply chains for medicines. As more nations receive COVID-19 vaccines and supply chains are increasingly complex, criminals may attempt to cut them with diverted and counterfeit products, sell counterfeit vaccines via the internet and offer illicit products in point-of-use locations.

In addition to the threats of theft and diversion, there are risks regarding logistical processes. However, they can be significantly reduced by effective governance. In many OECD countries, governments secure the supply chain for COVID-19 vaccines by monitoring the packaging, storage and shipping of products. Economies with underdeveloped health systems and government infrastructure may be easier targets for criminals carrying out vaccine and treatment frauds.

The online environment is one of the most challenging areas related to the illicit trade in COVID-19 vaccines: incidences of scams and fraud have already been observed worldwide. Criminals misuse all potential channels, including rogue online pharmacies, e-platforms and social networks, as well as text messages, emails or automated calls. In most cases, they use the names or logos of genuine producers to legitimatise their illicit offers. Such scams may be directed not only towards the general public, but also towards health agencies and governments in the form of fake tenders.

Good governance and co-operation with the pharmaceutical industry is paramount for ensuring legal, effective distribution of genuine COVID-19 vaccines. For governments, preparing governance frameworks to counter illicit trade related to COVID-19 vaccines is a challenge as, unlike other goods, there are no illustrative lessons from the past. They must prepare for unknown threats.

Read the report Enhancing public trust in COVID-19 vaccination: The role of governments and visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub to browse hundreds of others policy responses

Visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub

Enforcement agencies in many OECD countries are already fighting such illicit trade. Since its inception in April 2020, the United States Homeland Security Investigations’ Operation Stolen Promise has seized more than 1,600 COVID-19-related fake and substandard goods, and shut down almost 71,000 COVID-19-related internet domains. In the European Union, key agencies—including Europol, DG OLAF and DG Taxud—meet regularly to share information and to ensure effective distribution of the vaccine, while minimising risks.

To avoid scaremongering and causing undue panic, government agencies must clearly and transparently communicate to the general public on actual risks around illicit trade in vaccines. Messaging campaigns should explain online risks, underscore the importance of adhering to official government guidance and direct the public towards official information sources. As it is impossible to vaccinate everyone at once, awareness campaigns should reassure people that doses are coming and that everyone will get inoculated according to the priorities established by national plans.

The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic means that little is known about potential future scenarios. Consequently, vaccine distribution and all illicit trade-related incidents should be closely monitored and reported in a co-ordinated way, so that authorities can spot systems bottlenecks and identify possible weak and risky elements in the distribution chain.

The OECD Task Force on Countering Illicit Trade (TFCIT) offers an effective platform for such monitoring and reporting. It provides evidence on illicit trade and gauges relevant governance gaps. The TFCIT focuses on “low-risk, high-reward” forms of illicit trade, such as counterfeiting, wildlife and excise goods. It provides national authorities with the chance to keep up to date with problems, exchange experiences and best practices, and learn how to respond more effectively to evolving challenges.

Find out more about the OECD’s work on The race to vaccinate

Find out more about the OECD’s work on The race to vaccinate

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Trade Health Vaccines


Whether you agree, disagree or have another point of view, join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts and tell us what's happening where you are. Your comments are what make the network the unique space it is, connecting citizens, experts and policy makers in open and respectful debate.

Piotr Stryszowski

Senior Project Manager, Task Force on Countering Illicit Trade, OECD Public Governance Directorate

Piotr Stryszowski is Senior Project Manager at the OECD Public Governance Directorate in charge of the Task Force on Countering Illicit Trade. As the manager of the Task Force, Piotr supervises factual research on the magnitude and scope of illicit trade and on governance solutions to counter this threat. To advance the Task Force's goals, Piotr works together with delegates from OECD member countries, industry, academia, and other international organisations.

With more than 15 years at the OECD, Piotr also has profound experience in several economic policy areas other than illicit trade, such as innovation, intellectual property rights, and the Internet economy.

Piotr holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Tilburg University (the Netherlands)