The World Customs Organization is urging people to exercise “extreme caution” when purchasing medical supplies from unknown sources, particularly online. The use of these goods may cost lives, the group emphasizes.
Governments Battle Alarming Rise in Fakes
While the world is gripped by the fight against COVID-19, criminals have turned this into an opportunity for fraudulent activity. There have been an alarming number of reports quoting seizures of counterfeit critical medical supplies, such as face masks and hand sanitizers in particular.
Customs and law enforcement agencies in China, Germany, Indonesia, Uganda, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Vietnam, to name but a few, have reported such seizures in the past three weeks.
Moreover, there was a significant increase in seizures of counterfeit and unauthorized face masks and hand sanitizers during Operation Pangea XIII, a collaborative enforcement effort by the WCO, Interpol, Europol, Customs administrations, Police forces and other law enforcement agencies. This Operation, held from 3 to 10 March 2020, resulted in the seizure of 37,258 counterfeit medical devices, of which 34,137 were surgical masks.
Online Surge of Counterfeit Goods
E-commerce retailers have also announced a surge in sales of counterfeit goods. In particular, a US company reported the removal from its marketplace of a million products claiming to cure or prevent COVID-19. Tens of thousands of listings were removed because of price hiking, particularly for products in high demand such as masks.
In one operation, US Customs and Border Protection seized counterfeit COVID-19 test kits which had arrived at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) by mail from the United Kingdom. This seizure triggered a joint investigation by the City of London Police’s Intellectual Property Crimes Unit (PIPCO), the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), resulting in one arrest and the seizure of 300 more kits and 20 litres of chemicals for the production of such kits.
Countries Introducing New Export Controls
Given the shortages and the activities of market speculators, another important trend is the introduction of export licences for certain categories of critical medical supplies, such as face masks, gloves and protective gear. In particular, on 11 March 2020 Vietnam adopted Decision 868/QD-BYT by the Ministry of Health, introducing export permits for medical masks.
The European Union (EU) introduced a temporary export licensing scheme for personal protective equipment as of 14 March 2020 (see Commission implementing Regulation 2020/402). Other countries, such as Brazil, India, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine, have also followed suit.
The EU’s dual-use export control regime will also continue to be applied to more sophisticated items such as full face masks, protective gear, gloves and shoes, specifically designed for dealing with ‘biological agents’. The full list of such items can be found in Annex I to EU Regulation 428/2009, as amended.