Counterfeiting During the COVID-19 Crisis

Published: May 1, 2020

During the current COVID-19 crisis, the health of citizens across the globe is at risk. Because of the widespread nature of the disease, there has been a worldwide shortage of medical equipment. Counterfeiters, always seeking opportunities to make profits, are taking advantage of the shortage by producing and selling fake COVID-19‒related medical products, such as masks or tests, regardless of the potentially deadly consequences of their actions. INTA has been monitoring this situation closely, as well as efforts by key stakeholders in the anticounterfeiting battle to combat the issue.

The sale of fake COVID-19 –related medical products is evidenced by the following:

  • A case opened on March 19 by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) “in relation to the imports of fake products used in the fight against the COVID-19 infection, such as masks, medical devices, disinfectants, sanitisers and test kits.”
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) also highlighted that a growing volume of fake medicines linked to coronavirus are on sale in developing countries.
  • Seizures of fake COVID-19 tests and personal protective equipment such as face masks and hand sanitizers have been reported by the World Customs Organization (WCO), the US Customs Border Protection and customs of other member countries. The WCO even launched a dedicated IPR CENcomm Group to “globally enhance real-time intelligence sharing on fake medical supplies and medicines and enable Customs worldwide to fight illicit trade.”
  • Europol’s report on Pandemic Profiteering, published at the end of March, stressing the “particularly high demand for certain types of healthcare and sanitary products (masks, gloves, cleaning products, pharmaceutical products), which has created a substantial market for product counterfeiters, fraudsters and profiteers … both online and offline.”
  • A statement issued by the Transnational Alliance to Combat Illicit Trade, in collaboration with INTA, the United Kingdom’s Anti-Counterfeiting Group, and Elipe (a consultancy firm) on April 2, stressing “a surge in ineffective, fraudulent products[,] … which includes … fake, falsified and substandard medical products such as surgical masks, hydro-alcoholic gels, testing kits and thermometers, … high demand healthcare and consumer products prone to counterfeiting, including cleaning solutions, toilet paper, anti-bacterial wipes, indoor sports equipment, refrigeration appliances, food products and reading materials” and “illicit offerings of falsified versions of treatments such as Hydroxychloroquine and Azithromycin that will harm or kill already vulnerable patients.”

Fake COVID-19‒related products directly impact the health and safety of citizens. For example, fake surgical masks cannot protect against the spread of the coronavirus; a fake test cannot diagnose whether or not a person has been infected by the virus.

While the most recent and prominent counterfeiting scams involve fake COVID-19‒related products, they are, unfortunately, only a small part of the global threat that counterfeiting poses to health and safety. Other examples are toys made of toxic chemicals that small children put in their mouths, and fake airbags that could deploy at any time while driving a car—or not deploy when they should.

Health and safety concerns raised by counterfeiting are not new and they did not appear with the COVID-19 crisis, though this crisis has given them more prominence. Indeed, well before the current crisis, INTA warned about the health and safety risks posed by the circulation of counterfeit products in Europe.

  • INTA produced a Brands Manifesto in 2019 which shows the safety concerns of counterfeit products but also the many benefits that brands provide to the European Union, including (1) jobs creation; (2) supporting small and medium-sized enterprises; (3) contributing to citizens’ trust; and (4) fighting climate change;
  • INTA dedicated an anticounterfeiting policy dialogue in Brussels, Belgium, last December, on health and safety aspects of counterfeits with representatives of the EU Commission, the European Observatory on IPR Infringements, as well as representatives of the toy, automobile, and consumer goods industries.
  • INTA is working directly with law enforcement, including Europol and OLAF, to share information about emerging criminal activities or changes in the modus operandi in counterfeiting related to the pandemic crisis.
  • Finally, INTA has sent proposals to the EU Parliament related to combating counterfeiting in connection with the COVID-19 situation, to be included in the upcoming non-legislative report on “Addressing product safety in the single market.”
  • In connection with the COVID-19 crisis, INTA produced this  short video raising awareness on the health and safety dangers of counterfeiting:

These difficult times show us, more than ever, that safety and health protection are paramount for everyone. Now more than ever, we need to prevent EU citizens from fake products.

INTA’s Europe Representative Office, based in Brussels, Belgium, represents the Association’s 1,800+ members across Europe (including those in EU and non-EU member states, and Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States). Working in collaboration with staff at INTA’s headquarters in New York City, the Europe Representative Office leads the Association’s policy, membership, marketing, and communications initiatives throughout the region. To learn more about INTA’s activities in Europe, please contact INTA Chief Representative Officer–Europe Hélène Nicora at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @INTABrussels.

Although every effort has been made to verify the accuracy of items in the INTA Bulletin, readers are urged to check independently on matters of specific concern or interest.

© 2020 International Trademark Association