New posters have popped up on the streets of South Africa advertising ‘vaccination R150’. At first glance they could be referring to any vaccine, but COVID-19 is likely the disease in question. And recent incidents suggest there is cause for concern.

In November 2020, the South African Police Service raided a warehouse in Germiston east of Johannesburg and discovered a consignment of packages resembling COVID-19 vaccines. They comprised around 2 400 fake doses and large quantities of counterfeit N95 face masks that originated from China worth around R6 million (US$40 000). Days later, INTERPOL issued an orange notice warning for law enforcement agencies worldwide of organised crime networks advertising, selling and administering fake COVID-19 vaccines.

Covid-19 vaccination is intended to provide immunity against Covid-19

In February, police in China dismantled a criminal network responsible for producing and selling water as COVID-19 vaccine shots in Kunshan, eastern China. Police had arrested the syndicate leader in December 2020. It isn’t clear if the fake vaccines seized in South Africa originated from this network, but the syndicate did ship an estimated 600 doses abroad (destination unspecified) on 12 November 2020.

South Africa isn’t the only African country threatened by criminal networks trafficking fake medicines. Counterfeit vaccines have been reported only in South Africa, but this form of organised crime will eventually reach other African countries given the rise in COVID-19 cases on the continent.

Fake medicines are pharmaceutical products sold to deceive the buyers regarding the contents. These products are misbranded, often contain the wrong active ingredient or even toxic substances, and are manufactured by unqualified personnel.

The illegal trade in counterfeit medicines presents a significant threat to Africa. In addition to the negative impact on markets, economies and livelihoods, it also severely affects the health sector. ENACT research shows that these products help spread drug-resistant illness and undermine confidence in health professionals and systems.

Experts believe fake medicines and supplies are the most lucrative sector within the counterfeit market. While the market size is difficult to measure, it’s estimated to be billions of US dollars annually. Africa bears the brunt of this.

The World Health Organization reports that between 2013 and 2017, 42% of all cases of counterfeit medication reported were in Africa. However, this figure was probably higher, considering that not all cases are reported.

Craig Moffat, PhD is the Head of Programme: Governance Delivery and Impact for Good Governance Africa. He has more than 17 years of practical experience working for government institutions and multilateral organisations. He was previously employed by the South African Foreign Service, where he worked extensively at identifying and analysing security threats towards South Africa as well as the southern Africa region. Previously, he was the political advisor for the Pretoria Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stellenbosch University.

Richard Chelin is a project co-ordinator at GGA. He holds a MSocSci (Hons) in Conflict Transformation and Peace Studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a BA in Philosophy from St Joseph’s Theological Institute. He appears regularly on eNCA as a conflict analyst.