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Roderick Jones The Covid-19 vaccine is safe — and scarce. That makes it ripe for the black market.

A shortage of any commodity creates value, and behind that value falls the shadow of theft, espionage and sabotage. Here's how we can keep the vaccine secure.
Soldiers at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state on Tuesday stand near cooler bags that will be used to transport vials of the Pfizer vaccine for Covid-19.
Soldiers at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state on Tuesday stand near cooler bags that will be used to transport vials of the Pfizer vaccine for Covid-19.Ted S. Warren / AP

The United States is facing one of the greatest logistical challenges in its history as the Covid-19 vaccine begins to be deployed to the American public. That challenge includes providing equipment, transportation and staff sufficient for the delivery of hundreds of millions of doses, keeping the fragile compound stored in the proper conditions and monitoring the health and reactions of the millions who receive the inoculation.

If history is a guide, illicit markets for the Covid-19 vaccine are likely to develop to feed people who wish to jump the line or simply profit from trading in a valuable commodity.

Underlying each of these is another factor: the security of the vaccine itself. It is crucial that every government agency and private company involved takes adequate protective steps, or risk of jeopardizing the entire enterprise.

Scarcity of any commodity creates value, and behind that value falls the shadow of theft, espionage and sabotage. Scarcity of the vaccine will be a feature of its rollout for the next year as states and nations prioritize different groups to receive the vaccine first.

If history is a guide, illicit markets for the Covid-19 vaccine are likely to develop to feed people who wish to jump the line or simply profit from trading in a valuable commodity. These illicit markets will, in turn, build the necessary motivation for criminal networks to steal and counterfeit the new vaccine. And the arrival of these illicit markets online — offering real or faked Covid vaccines — is as certain as receiving a spam call.

It is, therefore, imperative that the rapid and early detection of illicit vaccine markets be prioritized by federal law enforcement in partnership with the vast array of cyberspace watchers in the National Security Agency. Unlike the past, these markets can be rapidly established on the dark net, operate globally using anonymous communications tools and rely on cryptocurrencies providing anonymity.

These dark markets are hard but not impossible to combat. Identifying and either shutting down these markets via technology or by destroying their credibility have been used to previous good effect. And in cases where uncooperative governments won’t stop these markets, infiltrating them so no buyer or seller can be sure they aren’t dealing with law enforcement has proven to be effective.

Beyond the marketplace, adequately defending against stolen and counterfeit vaccines means prioritizing the security and integrity of true vaccines at all stages of the journey from manufacture to the point of the needle.

It is reassuring that U.S. Marshals will be providing security for the vaccines from production to distribution sites, while dummy shipments will be sent to confuse any would be thief or activist. All are set to be monitored by GPS, and UPS will use a tracking tool to monitor its part of the distribution as well.

In order to limit the number of potential dangers along the supply route, vaccines will be shipped directly to hospitals and vaccination sites replicating high-value convoy transfers instead of taking more prosaic routes. Some places are limiting supply to avoid surplus sitting around unused and vulnerable to theft.

These are all sound and important measures. But the whole operation has been glued together so rapidly, there will be gaps where crime can flow in. It is important to consider the pressure points to try to plug up these holes as effectively as possible.

Of particular interest will be the large storage facilities around the country where refrigeration is necessary to keep the vaccine properly preserved. Thankfully, these locations are currently not being disclosed, as they represent a vulnerable point in the supply chain. But facilities will still need to take security steps, as this cloak of secrecy will not last. Precautions should include all the surveillance paraphernalia that’s been designed to keep the legal in and the illegal out.

The unusual requirements of the vaccine in terms of the scale and urgency of deployment, as well as refrigeration requirements that differ from those for the flu vaccine, means parts of the supply chain not be used to this kind of work and scrutiny. Some of the storage facilities, for instance, will not have previously been involved in the development and delivery of pharmaceutical products.

This physical supply chain is necessarily accompanied by a digital supply chain of companies and people communicating, planning and tracking. Here, too, Covid has forced instant reliance on IT systems across society that, for the most part, were not designed for their current uses. Home wifi networks are taking the place of secured corporate networks. They have worked remarkably well, and will have to continue to do so as industrial companies involved in the refrigeration, storage and transport of the vaccine will have to rely on their digitized scheduling and inventory systems at a scale not imagined when most were set up.

The digital vulnerabilities were made starkly clear Monday after the revelation of a massive Russian hack of U.S. agencies including the National Institutes of Health. The attack exemplifies the scale of disruption that can be caused by weaknesses in massively deployed corporate software systems, allowing, for instance, opponents to read all emails relating to planning and logistics.

Any weakness of cybersecurity could play into criminal hands as they seek to discover details of where doses are being stored, the employees handling them, shipment details and so on. Criminal networks blur comfortably with nation-state attackers in cyberspace, where information and methods are bought and sold on a fluid basis. Quietly entering a facility having hacked into the access controls and faked employee identity cards is much more effective than armed robbery.

It doesn’t help that the Covid-19 vaccine’s rollout occurs during a period of distrust and extreme opinions about the very use of vaccines. Protests or disruption for ideological reasons add an extra layer of complexity to traditional security challenges. The tools of digital disruption are open to all, while protests at storage facilities are even easier to manage than the deletion of inventory systems or the manipulation of a facility’s temperature setting.

The Covid-19 vaccine’s rollout occurs during a period of distrust and extreme opinions about the very use of vaccines. Protests or disruption for ideological reasons add an extra layer of complexity.

To defend vaccine distribution, the United States should use the full breadth of its law enforcement power to curtail and destroy any emergence of illicit markets featuring a Covid vaccine, but it must also work in concert with other countries as criminal enterprises can be global and all nations have an interest in restraining such crime.

Cybersecurity assistance could also be provided to firms who have recently been brought into this rapidly assembled supply chain to try to close as many gaps as possible. The Department of Homeland Security has had recent success in bringing disparate systems and states together to create digital integrity, and hopefully it can repeat this feat. There will be bumps; they just can’t be allowed to become criminal mountains.