Worries over growing counterfeit COVID-19 vaccine market in East Africa

On the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVAX website, one video is quoted as saying, “When the world has safe and effective vaccines, how can we make sure they reach the people that need them the most?” The WHO may need to urgently drill down into answering that question because there is a robust COVID-19 vaccine counterfeit market set to make millions shipping fake vaccines to Africa. Djibouti, Lomé (Togo), and Cotonou (Benin) are all known entry points for fake pharmaceutical products related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Based on historical data, there is no reason to believe that these ports won’t also serve as a hub for counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines. In particular, one port is making the news as an “easy target” – Mombasa Port in Kenya. 

Three weeks ago, Mombasa Port, one of Africa’s busiest harbors, registered an increase in the number of ships and cargo. Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) told Africa Inc. Magazine they were optimistic about the early indications of significant growth. However, there is also concern about the Port Authority’s ability to inspect goods because, as one port worker stated, “The more shipments, the less inspection.” 

Mombasa Port Mombasa Docks, Kenya 
Mombasa Port, Kenya

A 2020 report titled “Illicit goods trafficking via port and airport facilities in Africa,” published by Interpol, described a history of organized crime, for example, Mombasa Harbor facilitating a robust cocaine and heroin business coming from Latin America and Asia, 2.3 tons of ivory smuggled through the port 2016, which shipped from Mombasa to Hong Kong, among other known illegal activities. The report also stated, “the Port of Mombasa in Kenya has been identified as a major point of entry for counterfeit and illegal medicines.” 

Mombasa Port is expected to be a conduit for vaccine supplies from India and China to East African countries, like Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, including South Sudan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These countries have a high probability of receiving counterfeit Covid-19 vaccines due to the high number of cargo coming into the port all at once and the port’s ability to monitor, check, and control the incoming goods. 

Counterfit Vaccines 
Samples of counterfeit vaccines

“We can’t inspect everything that is entering from Asia; no way! We can only look at a few, so lots of illegal stuff is getting past us here. Still, there is nothing we can do about it,” stated one Mombasa Port Authority worker to Africa Inc. Magazine in February 2021. 

Free trade zones (FTZs) are another factor making ports susceptible to smuggling illicit goods and fake vaccines. In a 2019 analysis, Global Financial Integrity (GFI) called FTZs “Pandora’s box for illicit money” and “Customs authorities have little or no oversight of what goes on in an FTZ, goods are rarely ever inspected, and companies operating in FTZs tend to benefit from low disclosure and transparency requirements.” 

Knowing the risks and having a collective consensus on the probability of African countries receiving fake vaccines, what responsibility will the World Health Organization assume as an advocate for appropriate and authentic vaccines for all? What level of commitment must the African Union, World Trade Organization, and the UN Office on Drugs & Crime (UNODC) take to address the imminent threat? 

President Uhuru Kenyatta at a past interview event. [Source:Uhuru Kenyatta:Facebook] 
President Uhuru Kenyatta

The issue of counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines is more than an illegal operation to make money, more than ivory, drugs, and stolen auto sales. This issue will impact people’s confidence and trust in vaccines, doctors, nurses, hospitals, and regulatory authorities, resulting in a refusal to get a vaccination, leading to the continued spread of a deadly disease.

Kristi Pelzel is a Senior White House correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Kristi also covers the US Department of State and the United Nations. She holds a master's degree from Georgetown University.

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