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Vaccine Shipments Present a Security Challenge Worthy of a James Bond Film

Shipping companies are using kill switches, panic buttons, plainclothes guards, and tons of monitoring to ensure delivery.

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Illustration: Lia Kantrowitz for Bloomberg Businessweek

In the coming months, billions of doses of coronavirus vaccines will be dispatched via truck, plane, ship, and rail to hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies around the world. With that cargo worth tens of billions of dollars—and some individual shipments valued as high as $70 million—one thing is certain: Crooks will try to steal some of it. For freight haulers, the vaccine rollout poses “the biggest security challenge in a generation,” says Thorsten Neumann, chief executive officer of the European arm of the Transported Asset Protection Association, an industry group representing companies that carry precious goods.

Interpol in December issued an orange alert notice warning that it expects a dramatic increase in armed robberies of vaccine shipments, as well as vandalism by anti-vaccine militants. And if today’s highly profitable black markets for drugs treating, say, cancer and arthritis are any guide, it will be relatively easy for thieves to unload their loot. On the dark web, Covid-19 vaccines of unknown origin and authenticity are already selling for $200 per dose. That’s spurred freight companies to adapt a playbook developed to fight the $40 billion in theft from shippers every year of goods such as 5G handsets, $500 sneakers, and $5,000 handbags—employing methods ranging from added manpower to newfangled digital spycraft worthy of 007.