INTERPOL Warns of Criminal Threat to Vaccine Supply Chain

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Published Dec 7, 2020 11:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

As the first vials of approved COVID-19 vaccine finally make their appearance in Western nations, sophisticated criminals are gearing up to target the vaccine logistics system, warns INTERPOL. The international crime agency has issued an alert to law enforcement in nearly 200 member countries around the globe, warning them to prepare for organized crime networks targeting COVID-19 vaccines.

“As governments are preparing to roll out vaccines, criminal organizations are planning to infiltrate or disrupt supply chains," said Jürgen Stock, INTERPOL's Secretary General. “It is essential that law enforcement is as prepared as possible for what will be an onslaught of all types of criminal activity linked to the COVID-19 vaccine."

Many criminal organizations will be attracted to the prospect of stealing vaccines, given the high resale potential for a life-saving - and until recently, unattainable - medical treatment. "They [organized crime groups] are always ready for anything new and anything that will help them make money," said Alain Bauer, professor of criminology at the French National Conservatory for Arts and Crafts (Paris), speaking to NPR.

Vaccines require special handling and care for transport, including lab-grade refrigeration, and IBM has already detected malicious cyber activity targeting participants in the vaccine "cold chain" distribution system. It is unclear whether the identified cyberattacks were carried out by a state actor or a criminal organization, but they were sophisticated and broad in scope. 

“It is the most valuable asset on earth right now,” said Lisa Forte, partner at cybersecurity firm Red Goat, speaking to the New York Times. “Naturally, this will attract highly skilled cybercriminals, criminal groups and state actors.”

The vaccine distribution system is already under way in the UK, where the first doses will be administered to high-risk recipients like health care providers and elderly citizens beginning Tuesday. The UK approved Pfizer's vaccine candidate on December 2, making it the first nation in the West to begin vaccinating the general population. (China and Russia have also released vaccines on accelerated timetables.)

The ferry operator Stena Line is playing a key role in the transport of the Pfizer vaccine to the UK market, and so far, the firm reports that all is going smoothly. "Our ships are operating on time. We're happy to be part of the solution to be able to make sure that UK gets the vaccines that is required so that it can start its programme of vaccination," Stena Line chief communications officer Ian Hampton told Sky News.

As mass production and distribution begin to come online for the rest of the global market, hundreds of millions of vaccine doses will need secure transport to all corners of the world. According to Maersk, vaccine logistics requirements are extreme - low temperature, high complexity, high transparency, high control. "Every single hand off point from the premises of the manufacturer to the end user is closely monitored by an army of quality people ensuring that products are consistently stored, transported and handled under suitable conditions," said Maersk in a recent advisory. According to Maersk, the distribution model to do this job on a global scale has never yet been attempted, and the hard work to make it happen is under way now.