Stopping the spread of fake vaccines

July 20, 2021
How advanced technology can mitigate counterfeit COVID-19 vaccine distribution

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout should be considered a significant step forward in our fight to curb the pandemic. It has helped prevent deaths worldwide and helped our society move closer to a return to normalcy. However, one negative implication of the rollout has been the creation of a black market for counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines.

In Mexico, for example, supposed Pfizer vaccines were sold to 80 people from a private clinic for $500 to $1,200. The buyers later found out they were fake shots of a saline-like mix. Since the beginning of the rollout, the country’s health regulatory agency has issued six health alerts against the illegal sale of a long list of counterfeit AstraZeneca, Cansino, Moderna, Sinovac, Sinopharm and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines. On March 17, Mexican armed forces confiscated more than 5,700 doses of counterfeit Russian “Sputnik V” COVID-19 vaccines. Meanwhile in Poland, a 26 year-old man was arrested for being in possession of fraudulent vaccines. 

The World Health Organization has issued warnings of the dangerous threats fake COVID-19 vaccines pose to public health. In turn, those managing vaccine rollouts should integrate proactive measures to combat the distribution and dispensing of fraudulent vaccines. Through the use of several forms of advanced cold chain technology, vaccine manufacturers, handlers and administrators can each do their part to prevent counterfeit vials from reaching the arms of consumers, restrict smugglers from profiting off of illicit vaccines and maintain public confidence in the safety of the rollout.

Vaccine vial monitors

Vaccine vial monitors (VVM) are a vital component to help identify potential excessive heat exposure. This unique color changing material can also be used to help identify potential COVID-19 vaccine fraud. In recently reported cases, counterfeit vaccines were not handled at the temperatures required for authorized COVID-19 vaccines — which would indicate to healthcare administrators the vaccine did not travel along the cold chain appropriately and therefore should be removed from use.

The indicators are adhered to individual vials by manufacturers during the labeling and packaging stage to help identify heat excursions during vaccine shipment and storage. Cumulative heat events that could damage the vaccine cause the VVM’s chemical ink to darken, indicating to healthcare workers and recipients that the vaccine may have been compromised. 

Since VVMs do not require a power source by design, they are a reliable option for maintaining temperature visibility, providing confidence to administrators that the vaccine has been handled within the cold chain requirements. Distributors and administrators simply have to look at the color of the VVM at any time to verify if there has been a heat exposure. If so, they can choose to rule it unviable, remove it from inventory, and then launch an investigation to see if it is a fraudulent vaccine vial or if there was simply an issue with cold chain performance.   

RFID track and trace

To combat vaccine fraud, the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) track and trace technology can provide detailed monitoring of authentic COVID-19 vaccine shipments from manufacturing plants to administration sites. Fixed and handheld RFID readers provide visibility into each tagged vaccine container during shipment by collecting location data and compiling it into simplified reports and graphs. In turn, logistics managers and inventory handlers gain the insights needed to confirm status and take corrective action as appropriate. With real-time visibility into the cold chain, administration sites can: 

  • Verify when vaccine shipments have made it to each checkpoint of the cold chain and predefined destination.
  • Leverage feedback loops to identify the cause of major distribution inefficiencies that are delaying delivery.
  • Focus on tasks at hand without being concerned about the logistics of the vaccine’s journey.

Any shipments not adhering to the administration site’s RFID track and trace requirements, such as RFID tags, can be identified as needing further investigation with the potential to be rendered unfit for use.


The use of 2D barcode and scanners can enable vaccine administrators to quickly identify the origin and authenticity of a COVID-19 vaccine with a single scan. By working in conjunction with printed barcode labels, 2D scanners can provide detailed monitoring information of COVID-19 vaccines from the first to last mile of the cold chain. 

2D scanners are durable and fit for use in harsh weather conditions, which make them an optimal option for cold chain management. In manufacturing environments, fixed industrial barcode readers will capture barcodes automatically, at high rates of speed, and securely communicate to enterprise software.

Visual Indicator Cards

Visual indicator cards are another viable option to identify temperature excursions at the container level. These cards have the ability to track cold and heat deviations to ensure vaccine batches have stayed within the appropriate temperature range while in storage and transit. By adhering to specific handling and delivery protocols, including the use of a visual indicator card in sealed packages, fraudulent containers could be more easily identified. 

The effective management of COVID-19 vaccine distribution will continue to be key to mitigating the spread of counterfeit vaccines. Above all, leveraging multiple layers of advanced technologies represents a viable option for maintaining the highest possible level of product integrity throughout each vaccine’s life cycle.

About the Author

Tony Cecchin | VP and GM of Global Supplies for Zebra Technologies