By Priya Adlakha and Sanjana Kala
A counterfeit product is one which is intended to deceive consumers into buying a fake or fraudulent product by affixing someone else’s registered trademark or one that is deceptively similar to the said trademark on such product without authorization and in order to gain illegal profits by riding on the reputation and goodwill associated with the registered trademark. Understandably, marks that acquire sufficient popularity and repute in the market are the ones targeted by counterfeiters in order to boost sales of their inferior quality/ fake products.
With COVID-19 afflicting the world at an alarming pace, the menace of counterfeiting appears to be manifesting itself not only as a threat to legitimate brand owners (who are likely to suffer a loss in revenue and reputation), but also as a major risk to the health and safety of the public at large leading to deadly consequences.
PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT IN INDIA
Personal protective equipment or PPE may be equipment or garments designed to prevent the wearer from contracting any injury and/or infection. PPE may be in the form of body suits, respirators, helmets, goggles, masks, etc. This equipment is donned by the country’s first line of defense, the medical, hospital and other essential services personnel, whilst putting their lives at risk and ensuring smooth functioning of operations in their field of service.
In March 2020, when the WHO was reporting a global shortage of PPEs, India was importing all of its essential medical gear with zero local manufacturing. However, within a span of one month, India has accumulated resources to ramp up production to 30,000 units a day by roping in local private players and also by contributions from government agencies including the Indian Railways. Even with resources pooled and operating to their maximum capacity, India has yet to reach its goal of manufacturing 100,000 units per day. In fact, the availability of PPE and related medical equipment is one of the major factors being considered by the government towards making a decision on the duration of the lockdown period. Further, it may be noted that one of the reasons why the government imposed the lockdown in the first place was to prepare and attempt to get their medical facilities in order so that a breakdown of medical infrastructure at a future time may be prevented.
COUNTERFEITS IN THE MARKET
In view of the shortage of essential medical gear in the market and increasing demand by doctors for quality PPEs, it comes as no surprise that unscrupulous counterfeiters have set up shop overnight to meet these requirements. With only about 15 large scale manufacturers roped in by the government that qualify to produce PPEs, coupled with logistical challenges in supply and transport owing to the lockdown, the demand from local hospitals seemed inexhaustible. This proved to be easy fodder for counterfeiters who have now devised bogus supply chains and procured unauthorized raw material to produce substandard PPE kits. In this regard, it is pertinent to mention an investigation conducted by India Today TVthat revealed sweatshops cum PPE factories churning out make-shift medical equipment using blazer covers and carry bags.
As regards online channels, counterfeit Made-in-China face masks available for sale on online platforms in India and other South-East Asian countries were recently pulled down after it was revealed that the masks were falsely bearing the registered trademark VALPRO along with an approval number assigned to the American multinational 3M.
The spread of the virus also saw an upsurge in the import of counterfeit PPEs to India, in particular from China, a majority of which (around 50,000 out of 170,000) failed the quality and safety test and had to be dumped. However, more PPEs have been imported since, after reports of the Chinese government introducing stricter norms for manufacture of PPEs made the rounds. Customs officials in India are now on high alert to prevent any import of counterfeit or spurious medical equipment/ PPEs and to ensure that no criminal networks are able to supply the same into India.
THE WAY FORWARD
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has issued guidelines for the types of PPEs to be used during the COVID-19 outbreak along with their specifications. However, as demonstrated above, despite government impositions, counterfeit PPEs are making their way in the market both through online and offline channels and across the border as well. Given this, the need of the hour is for the government and the corporates alike to join hands and come together to not only stem the flow of counterfeits but also to create an environment of assurance for our medical staff such that they may carry out their duty on the frontline without fear. To achieve this, it is imperative that,
- more licenses are issued to local manufacturers;
- adherence to quality standards specified in the PPE guidelines is maintained;
- price of raw material used for manufacturing PPEs is standardized;
- supply chain and distribution channels for PPE production are streamlined;
- issues like hurdles in transport and shortage of staff are addressed on priority.
Once the country eases into production of PPEs and meets the requisite demand, the menace of counterfeit/ sub-standard equipment sold in the black market at hiked prices, would resolve itself to quite an extent. In this regard, the Indian Customs Office can also step in to ensure that only quality PPEs are being transmitted into the Indian market. Some of the steps the Customs authorities can take include:
- Taking assistance from brand owners and certification agencies in identification of counterfeit goods being imported into India;
- Organizing online training programs for Customs Officers and educating them on inspection and identification of counterfeit PPEs;
- Disseminating information regarding any counterfeit medical gear Customs Officers have come across and warn the general public to be on the lookout;
- Coordinating with enforcement agencies of other countries to create a database that can help in identifying local counterfeiters.
It is also incumbent on affected brand owners to focus on anti-counterfeiting measures and brand protection from the get-go. These measures may be in the form of awareness programs where hospital staff is trained to differentiate between original and counterfeit PPEs by examining their packaging and/ or positioning of trademarks. Brands have even launched dedicated brand protection initiatives that aim towards working in tandem with Custom authorities around the world to identify and remove counterfeit gear from the stream of commerce. Such measures are not only important for brand protection but are also crucial in these times of peril, when prevention of sale of even one counterfeit PPE has the potential to save countless lives.
Steps taken by brand owners against availability of counterfeit healthcare products
Project Cerberus by UL
As mentioned earlier, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic there is an unprecedented demand for personal protective equipment, medical devices and other health and safety related items. Transnational counterfeiters are taking advantage of this pandemic. They are manufacturing and distributing fake products that could potentially endanger the health of front line health care workers, patients as well as consumers.
In order to help combat these illegal activities, UL Brand Protection has launched a dedicated anti-counterfeiting initiative entitled Project Cerberus. This initiative will focus operational efforts on identifying counterfeit UL marked healthcare and life safety type products, removing these from the marketplace and holding offenders accountable for their illegal actions.
Below is UL’s guide which will help in identifying the UL certification marks and medical and life safety products that may be impacted.
The UL Brand Protection team will partner with eCommerce platforms, custom and border protection agencies, police and other law enforcement organizations as well as global stakeholders to target offenders dealing in these types of products.
The team has prepared a one-page guide that provides an overview of the UL marked products that are being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The UL team is also providing webinar training that will help support the identification of these types of counterfeit UL marked products.
Anyone who wishes to take part in Project Cerberus or have UL’s team provide a training session can contact them via firstname.lastname@example.org.