Operation STOP: the WCO operation hits hard the illegal trafficking linked to COVID-19

The World Customs Organization (WCO) and its Members have successfully run a global emergency operation called “STOP” against illegal trafficking linked to COVID-19, the report on which was presented at an online conference. Operation STOP is the WCO’s immediate and urgent response, working with 99 Member administrations and its network of Regional Intelligence Liaison Offices (RILOs), to the resurgence in illegal trafficking of medicines and medical supplies, including those linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During Operation STOP, Members reported a total of 1,683 interceptions. This amounted to over 300 million units of medicines, as well as more than 47 million units of medical supplies (masks, gloves, COVID-19 test kits, thermometers and gowns) and approximately 2.8 million litres of hand sanitizer gel. Thanks to the operation, thousands of lives have been saved and borders made more secure, thereby mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic by protecting citizens against the use of potentially ineffective or even harmful medical products and equipment. The WCO continues to keep a close eye on developments in the situation, with a view to possible future actions.

Operation STOP ran from 11 May to 12 July 2020, under WCO Secretariat guidance. For 63 days, Members simultaneously carried out targeted inspections of consignments, using the WCO’s checklist of COVID-19-related goods. The operation was a useful barometer of illicit trafficking associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Customs authorities were able to prevent national markets being infiltrated by date-expired, illegal and counterfeit medicines and sanitizer gels without any sanitizing properties, as well as COVID-19 test kits, masks, goggles, thermometers and medical gowns not compliant with the requisite healthcare standards or not authorized by the competent authorities.

In his opening speech, the WCO Secretary General, Dr. Kunio Mikuriya, was delighted to report on the success of Operation STOP, which, in his words, “demonstrated the adaptability and know-how displayed by Customs as the only government agency empowered to monitor all cross-border movements of goods, particularly at a time of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic”. He went on to congratulate and thank all the Customs administrations having taken part in the operation, and all the stakeholders involved, namely international organizations such as INTERPOL, the UNODC, OLAF and Europol and the private sector represented by Novartis, Servier, Pfizer, Sanofi and UL.

Information exchange during the operation was facilitated through the secure communication tool set up by the WCO, the IPR CENcomm Group, launched at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to encourage information and data sharing among Members.

Analysis of the data obtained during the operation provides information on the main routes used and modi operandi involved, as well as highlighting the most commonly trafficked products linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. The results and conclusions of the operation will enable the WCO and its Members to enhance the management of operational risks faced by Customs and will ensure more effective targeting of illegal goods at global, regional and national levels.