Tight security surrounds COVID-19 vaccine, world's most sought-after asset

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Right now there is a huge demand and a short supply of the COVID-19 vaccine, making it a massive target for theft. Securing the immunizations is a top priority for everyone involved, especially the U.S. Marshals Service which is the government agency tasked with making sure no one messes with this coveted commodity.

"There will be a lot of people trying to get their hands on this. Security is going to be paramount," said Ed Farrell, former U.S. Marshals Service Supervisory Inspector and current owner of Silver Star Protection Group.

The U.S. Marshals Service has been securing things at a high level for a very long time.

"The oldest federal agency has been around since 1789, and they run the witness protection program, they do security at courthouses, and in 2002, they started the SNS program, which is a partnership with the CDC," said Farrell. "After 9/11 they learned that they were having problems deploying those medical assets in a national crisis. They pre plan these distribution channels, to make sure they can get vaccine, antidotes and medical items to the public."

The SNS Program is the Strategic National Stockpile Security Program. It is made up of dozens of full time US Marshals Service inspectors with specialized training and certifications.

"The marshals will provide physical security from the manufacturer, all the way to what's called a POD, a point of distribution, and in each state that's going to look a little bit different," said Farrell.

During the pandemic, professional criminals have already gotten their hands on valuable personal protective equipment and COVID tests, according to police. Now authorities say they are worried about foreign governments and savvy organized crime groups trying to get a hold of the vaccine.

"It's ripe for a black market intervention. There's a sense of urgency and anxiety on the part of the public to be able to get this product and get it as quickly as they can. And so as you can imagine the supply chain and the distribution network are potentially vulnerable to a number of different actors who would look to attack it either physically or through a cyber-attack," Jim McDonnell, former Sheriff of Los Angeles County, told the I-Team.

Pfizer says GPS software is tracking the location of the product at all times. Dummy trucks are being used to throw off potential hijackers. Technology is cutting down on counterfeiting.

During the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, 900 doses of the H1N1 vaccine were stolen in Milwaukee.

"Pharmaceutical companies deal with this kind of issue on an everyday basis. When you look at worldwide statistics, theft of pharmaceuticals is up 70% over the last two years, so they're very much in tune to what's going on and know that this cargo is extremely precious," said McDonnell.

Both Pfizer and Moderna say they have increased security at their manufacturing facilities. Many local hospitals and pharmacies tell the I-Team they are used to securing sought after medications.

"Anytime you have something that is more valuable than what you could pay for, you have the opportunity for fraud. So one of the things that we're starting to see right now is doctors, creating websites. I don't even think they're doctors and saying that they have access to the vaccine and for a fee you can basically skip the line," said Haywood Talcove, CEO of LexisNexis Risk Solutions-Government Division. "So what I've been telling everybody is please use a trusted pharmacy, Walgreens, CVS or a trusted health care provider. This isn't the time to be going on the web, looking for a doctor who claims they have access to the vaccine because the probability of them having access to the vaccine, at least the legitimate one is about zero."

Another worry is maintaining identity security.

"So one of the things that we're doing is we're helping the doctors and the pharmacies, make sure that the individual that's actually requesting the vaccine is the individual that is that person. It is really important to make sure that the person receiving the shot is the person who was authorized to receive the shot," said Talcove.

The intelligence community says recent hacks on federal government networks are likely an attempt to infiltrate the vaccine supply chain or steal intellectual property.

There is worldwide alert from Interpol concerning vaccine security threats. The International Criminal Police organization has put out an "Orange Notice" that warns of an imminent threat to public safety, from vaccine shipment hijackings by organized crime to the sale of fake inoculations.
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