The pandemic is creating the conditions for the creation of a black market in vaccines. The gap between supply and demand will stimulate parallel distribution channels with stolen products, or worse, counterfeits. On the darknet, doses of SAR-CoV2 vaccines are sold for 300 USD/dose – in the best case, they can sell water, in the worst case products dangerous to health. According to IBM, hacker groups have attempted to penetrate crucial supply chains – no one understands their motives. And at the beginning of December, Europol issued warnings. In fact, the trend was there before the pandemic. According to the Institute of Pharmaceutical Safety, theft and counterfeiting of pharmaceutical products have increased by 70% in the last five years.
The black market, which can be expected to explode at any moment, is not only a risk for customers. It also risks shattering an already fragile trust. While contaminated products are unlikely to infiltrate official supply chains, at least in industrialized countries, the mere possibility could have a negative impact on vaccination campaigns. We cannot allow public confidence to be shaken. It’s not just about the rise of skeptics. We need to be fully transparent with all those who wish to be vaccinated, often motivated by a strong sense of citizenship.
Part of the answer is technological
Recent advances in sensors, blockchain, chemical testing, and serialization – the unique identifiers for each vaccine vial – give us the means to have a fully secure and easily verifiable supply chain.
All over the world, many startups are developing track and trace technologies for the pharmaceutical industry. Holograms are provided by the Irish Optrace, contactless chips by the Pakistani company Pharma TRAX, food labels (one for each pill!) by the American TruTag, turnkey monitoring and tracing solutions are provided by the Italian Antares Vision…. There have never been more ways to securely monitor supply chains and ensure transparency.
The American case
In the United States, it’s like a movie unfolding. The vaccines leave the Pfizer factory with a federal escort. It seems that some convoys are empty acting as decoys. Each vaccine shipment is equipped with Bluetooth sensors to constantly check its position and temperature. Fluorescent markings are used to verify authenticity upon delivery.
All of these initiatives are based on what we call trusted technologies. There are many more than you think. Almost all human transactions can be protected. Cash is probably the first and oldest of these technologies. Beyond the purely practical aspects, cash establishes a relationship of trust between two parties, allowing the establishment of accounting, guaranteeing reimbursement, penalties. Increasingly sophisticated security inks protect banknotes against counterfeiting; Each use of a credit card triggers a mini-survey using different algorithms to detect fraud. Another example of trusted technology is Uber driver GPS tracking, which allows us to get in a car with a complete stranger without worry. Without these technologies, our transactions would be much less secure.
When a health-related transaction takes place, trust is even more important. In fact, it’s vital, literally. We are inclined to compromise when it comes to our television, a little less when it comes to our car, let alone our medicines. This is why Europe and the US have insisted on deploying “track and trace” technologies for health products.
What is track and trace?
The approach aims to deploy technologies, processes and regulations so that each batch of medicines can be identified throughout its supply chain. It is based on a combination of physical markings and digital data associated with the product. The data must be directly linked to each shipment, or perhaps to each vial or pill. Fraudsters and fakes have data that is disconnected from the original product – just as fake news is disconnected from verifiable reality. The industry has the same narrative as the government in this area. Before the pandemic, the European Medicines Verification Organisation (EMVO) was raising the stakes with an ambitious venue to roll out track and trace at European level. It represented a close cooperation between the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals and pharmacies from the 28 EU countries – a massive logistics undertaking.
Efforts to increase transparency and tracking start with the manufacture of the products and then follow the supply chain – as explained. But the chain doesn’t stop once the vaccine has been injected. The data should not only concern manufacturing, transport and administration, but also the “after”. At SICPA and other companies, we are working on the development of digital vaccination certificates. The documents securely link the supplier, the unique vaccine number, the health authority administering the product, and finally, the person vaccinated and tested for their immune response. For example, our system is based on a combination of blockchain and QR codes that make it possible to issue secure certificates in digital or paper form.
The challenges of certification
These certificates could be a major asset to get out of this global crisis. No phase III clinical trial is as statistically accurate as a campaign involving millions of patients. Coordinated and automated surveillance would allow us to measure vaccine effectiveness over the long term and in different settings. While it meets high standards of personal data protection, a digital vaccination pass could also discourage people from turning to the black market. By being vaccinated in an official center, we contribute to a collective effort to optimize public health strategies. If a reminder is required, we will be contacted; We can also show verifiable and tangible proof of vaccination.
Never has trust been more important than in the resolution of the health, economic and social crisis of covid. With its expertise in the fields of medtech and processes (insurance, finance, etc.) combined with a strong capacity for innovation, Switzerland could play an important role in the deployment of these trusted technologies. But above all, these technologies are crucial for our democracies to calmly and rationally face the next pandemic – which we hope will come later rather than sooner