Laser spectroscopy can detect falsified COVID shots

An international consortium of researchers has developed a new method to tackle the problem of COVID-19 vaccine falsification, using a technology called spatially offset Raman spectroscopy (SORS).

SORS performs chemical analysis by shining a laser light into an intact vial of the vaccine and inspecting the light emanating from the vial to indicate the presence of different ingredients, and has been tested for its role in identifying fake vaccines by a team from various academic groups in the UK and India, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and technology company Agilent.

The project came about from a recognition that techniques for identifying counterfeit vaccines in vials were unsuitable for deployment at the scale needed to screen stocks at multiple locations in supply chains, and generally require specialist labs.

The collaborators – led by the University of Oxford’s Medicine Quality Research Group – describe their use of a handheld SORS device to authenticate COVID-19 vaccines in unopened vials in a paper published in the journal Vaccine. The device shines a laser light into the vial and reads the light emanating from it to indicate the presence of different ingredients, focusing in particular on inactive excipients used in the formulation.

The technology was put through its paces by comparing genuine vaccine vials with a series of surrogate falsified and substandard products, which included degraded samples of the vaccines as well as saline and various formulations based on sugars or other pharmaceutical ingredients.

The results show that SORS can verify the chemical identity of dominant excipients non-invasively through vaccine vial walls, according to the researchers, who said SORS can provide “an intrinsic molecular fingerprint of the dominant excipients of the vaccines.”

They suggest it could be used alongside existing security features, for example on labels and packaging, which do not protect against some forms of falsification such as refilling used and discarded vials and representing them as genuine new products.

Handheld and portable SORS devices are commercially available and widely used for other purposes, such as airport security, so the approach is rapidly deployable as a non-invasive screening tool for authenticating vaccines and other medicines vaccines and liquid and solid medicines, according to the authors.

“This study is part of the continuing effort by the Medicine Quality Research Group to conduct research to inform policy and interventions to try to ensure that medications and vaccines used by millions across the group are of high standard and trustworthy,” commented Prof Paul Newton, co-senior author on the study and head of the MQRG.

The study used Agilent Resolve, a handheld SORS system.

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