Scams and counterfeit medicines - people need to be informedThe Council of Europe’s Medicrime Convention offers a unique platform for countries to work together, to prevent and counter falsified medical products during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Gianluca Esposito, Head of the Council of Europe’s Action Against Crime Department, talks about the potential for countries to work together to prevent fake products entering the market and to confront the online platforms that distribute the fake products.
During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen a host of scams involving fake self-testing kits, so-called miracle cures, governments being defrauded by conmen offering masks that are paid for but never delivered. The Council of Europe has issued a toolkit for governments on respecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law during the COVID-19 crisis. Measures against medicrime are in that toolkit. Gianluca Esposito is the head of the Council of Europe’s Action Against Crime Department.
What is your assessment of the scale of medicrime as a threat to health so far?
GE: It is a very serious threat. It is already a serious threat in normal times. Covid has exacerbated that threat and the risk for individuals is very high. You are right when you say that there is large circulation of everything from fake masks to kits, to miracle cures. These things, at the very least, are misleading. They provide you with misleading information. At worst, they can actually be extremely detrimental to your life and to your health. This is a very serious threat to public health, and this is something governments should take very seriously.
The Council of Europe’s Medicrime Convention is in place to safeguard public health and target criminal behaviour. The committee behind the Convention has recently issued an opinion on the situation and made recommendations. Looking at the opinion, what are state parties being advised to do regarding counterfeit or falsified medicines?
GE: The Medicrime Convention offers a unique platform for countries to work together, to prevent and to counter the scourge of falsified medical products. The Committee has gathered information from different sources: from law enforcement, at the national and international level, from industry groupings and from member states themselves. The parties to the Convention realised that the Covid coronavirus had certainly brought about an exacerbation of the circulation of fake medicines or fake medical products on the market. Therefore, the Committee decided to sound the alarm bell and call upon member states, first of all, to use the Convention as a platform for cooperation, to focus on prevention - making sure that these fake products would not enter the market - and to pay specific attention to the online platforms that distribute those fake products, but also focusing on pooling staff in the places where it is more critical to stop the circulation of fake medical products. For example, at borders to make sure that merchandise that enters the country is not polluted by fake medical products, but also, at distribution centres and at medical facilities. Finally, the opinion underlines the importance of bringing criminal charges against those people who are engaged in criminal activities and focuses on the need to gather evidence today, because this is the moment where we have the opportunity to gather evidence, to bring these people to justice. Finally, last but not least, there is the importance of victims and their need for protection.
Now we hear that clothing manufacturers are offering or being asked to make PPE equipment – personal protective equipment, and that private sector tech and engineering companies are making ventilators and other medical equipment. How much of a risk is there of some of that being counterfeit?
GE: Clearly, there are very strict rules about how you make a mask, how and where you take tests to know if you are positive or not with the virus. There are places where you can get medicines, and all these are official places. People have to go to these places to have access to the right equipment and the right medicine. If manufacturers produce equipment according to the rules, if they have the right to produce the equipment, then, there should be no problem. If clear rules are applied across borders, they make a difference between a mask that protects you and a mask that will not achieve the aim.
The Medicrime Convention extends beyond Europe’s borders – across to Africa. Is there a worry there?
GE: What we see is a huge interest among African and also South-American countries in our Convention. The risks that we have become aware of in countries in Africa are related in particular to the risks that come from falsified medicines - for example, boxes that pretend to include medicines that achieve a certain objective but that in reality don’t. At best, these medicines produce no effect, but in the worst case they can be very harmful to people’s health, so it is certainly a concern.
You mentioned victims – what about the rights of victims in all of this?
GE: First of all, people need to be informed. One of the reasons why we are making a lot of publicity about this opinion by the Medicrime Convention Committee is really to draw attention, to raise awareness of the risks. We have all received in our mail boxes a lot of scams - people wanting to sell you masks for a very small price, in huge quantities, delivered in one day. If we want to make sure that people know that this is clearly false information that should not be acted upon, people need to be informed. Secondly, if and when they fall into the trap, they certainly need to be supported and evidence of wrongdoing should be collected now, not later, without waiting for the pandemic to end. This is the moment when we are able to identify those people who are engaging in these criminal activities.