Published on Investing in Health

Fighting fake COVID-19 Vaccines – a key pandemic-ending goal

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Bespectacled man holding a box of medicine in a pharmacy Bespectacled man holding a box of medicine in a pharmacy

Now that the world is on the verge of a significant upswing in COVID-19 vaccine availability, efforts to prevent harmful fake versions matter more than ever.  One of the most precious health commodities is under threat, and swift action could avert a crisis within the crisis. Falsified COVID-19 vaccines in the marketplace, whether on the internet or on the street, will make ordinary people hesitant to be vaccinated, undermining efforts to end the pandemic.  COVID-19 vaccine verification systems are in sights, but supply chains remain vulnerable. 

Building a supply chain innovation consensus

In early 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, the World Bank-hosted Global Steering Committee for Quality Assurance of Health Products (GSC) started a process aimed at protecting health supply chains. The GSC created a COVAX Traceability Advisory Council made up of leading COVID vaccine manufacturers, technology solution providers, international health financing institutions, and leading regulatory authorities for medicines. 

Traceability of COVID-19 vaccines from the manufacturer to the end user, otherwise known as track and trace, was desirable but a long way off.  With input from leading African medicines regulators like NAFDAC, the group soon landed on a “lean traceability” model. And so, the race began.

Global standards, such as the world leading GS1 product labeling format, provide the basis for track and trace systems that protect medicines from falsification and diversion in many developed economies.

Such digital infrastructure does not yet exist in most low-and-middle-income countries. The GSC’s COVAX Traceability group quickly zeroed in on the interim goal of product verification, which will put in place a basic building block for full track and trace for health commodities in the years to come. In the short run, however, front line health workers, patients, and law enforcement need this streamlined verification tool to determine whether a product is the real thing.

Providing assurance will accelerate vaccination goals

COVID-19 has been used to create an active coalition around a solution that offers countries an option to protect their citizens against fake vaccines  - once the system is up and running More importantly this work can catalyze the development of a global system that has major potential benefits in the future.

The near-term creation of a central database of authentic product information can help countries and health development institutions use mobile apps to verify COVID-19 vaccines before patients are asked to roll up their sleeve. Such a step is critical to safeguard the confidence and trust of millions of people who will receive vaccines procured through COVAX.

The Global Steering Committee will continue its awareness raising and advocacy efforts. One of the greatest weapons against illicit medicines such as fake COVID-19 vaccines is timely information sharing.  Interpol, a GSC observer, has published orange notice warning to its global law enforcement network about falsified COVID vaccines, and it has engaged in a number of high-profile operations to target illicit COVID related health commodities.

Working together to protect supply chain integrity, health, development and financing institutions will build public trust that countries depend upon to drive successful vaccination campaigns. 

Turning the corner requires vigilance and endurance

The anxious early days of the pandemic may have faded for some countries, but an effective global pandemic response will require concerted and patient efforts over the coming year.  Verification systems for COVID-19 vaccines are a good example.

Coupled with the tremendous efforts of front-line health workers, this enhanced level of quality assurance will go a long way toward building confidence around future COVID-19 vaccine distribution. It will also help many countries jump-start their national medicines track and trace systems, which offers valuable health supply chain integrity.

The traceability innovation catalyzed through the GSC’s COVID-19 response will have lasting impact, but rolling out at the national level will require the active support and engagement of national governments and all health partners.


Tom Woods

Chairman of the Global Steering Committee for Quality Assurance of Health Products

Andreas Seiter

Global Lead of the World Bank’s Health, Nutrition and Population Global Practice

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