July 8, 2020 / 7:12 AM / a month ago

Criminals cash in on rush to buy coronavirus protective gear, U.N. says

FILE PHOTO: A worker piles up a shipment containing supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) at Bari airport after arriving from Guangzhou, China, to help the southern Italian region of Puglia combat a spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Bari, Italy, April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

VIENNA (Reuters) - A rush by countries to buy personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic has created an opportunity for criminal groups, which are peddling sub-standard equipment and likely to move on to medicines soon, a U.N. report said on Wednesday.

Criminals have adapted quickly, also running scams where no equipment is supplied at all, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in the report.

“COVID-19 has been the catalyst for a hitherto unseen global market for the trafficking of PPE. There is also some evidence of the trafficking of other forms of substandard and falsified medical products, but not to the same extent as PPE,” the report said.

It gave few specific examples of criminal groups supplying PPE but it said Argentina had placed under investigation an organisation making hand sanitizer, face masks and other PPE that was not authorised for distribution. It also cited a media report of counterfeit medical masks being produced in Turkey.

“Regional trends indicate that significant seizures of protective equipment, mostly substandard and falsified face masks and IVD (in vitro diagnostic) test kits for COVID-19, have occurred in the regions where the highest number of deaths and infections were first recorded: Asia, Europe and the Americas,” it said.

As for scams where nothing was supplied, the UNODC said that in March “German health authorities contracted two sales companies in Switzerland and Germany to procure a consignment of face masks worth 15 million euros ($17 million) through a cloned website of an apparently legitimate company in Spain”.

It called for greater cooperation to close “gaps” in regulation and oversight.

“It can be expected that as a treatment becomes available and a vaccine to prevent contracting COVID-19 is identified, the focus will move away from PPE scams towards vaccine and treatment scams,” the report said.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Giles Elgood

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