Lives at risk as trafficking in faulty masks, other gear surges

VIENNA • Lives are at risk as the new coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in the trafficking of substandard masks, sanitisers and other medical products, the United Nations (UN) warned yesterday.

Organised criminal groups — exploiting fears and uncertainties surrounding the virus — are providing such products to cater to a sudden surge in demand and the supply gap, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report, and it expected criminals to shift their focus to vaccine-related trafficking once one is developed.

“Health and lives are at risk with criminals exploiting the Covid-19 crisis to cash in on public anxiety and increased demand for personal protective equipment and medications,” UNODC ED Ghada Waly said in a statement.

An Interpol-coordinated operation to target illegal online sales of medicines and medical products with participation of 90 countries in March led to 121 arrests worldwide and the seizure of substandard and fake face masks, as well as more than US$14 million (RM59.78 million) worth of potentially dangerous pharmaceutical products, the report said.

Compared to an earlier 2018 operation, Interpol reported an increase of about 18% in seizures of unauthorised antiviral medication and a more than 100% increase in seizures of unauthorised chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug used to treat coronavirus patients in some countries.

UNODC called for increased international cooperation, strengthened legal frameworks and penalties and more training for those who work in the medical product sector, saying “only a common approach will enable effective responses”.

“We need to help countries increase cooperation to close gaps, build law enforcement and criminal justice capacity, and drive public awareness to keep people safe,” Waly said. — AFP