Q&A with Louise Shelley: COVID-19 and Illicit Trade

World renowned expert on transnational crime and illicit trade Louise Shelley discusses the relationship of COVID-19 to illicit trade. Shelley is the founder and director of the Schar School of Policy and Government’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC). She was an inaugural Andrew Carnegie Fellow that funded her to write her latest book, Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy Is Threatening our Future (Princeton University Press, 2018). It discusses how illicit trade threatens our future through ease of illicit trade through technology and environmental crime which is at the heart of this new pandemic.

What is the relationship between COVID-19, illicit trade, and transnational crime?

Louise Shelley: Illicit trade may have contributed significantly to the start of this epidemic. The virus seems to have started in the wet markets of Wuhan where illicitly traded pangolins are sold. Pangolins, according to Chinese scientists, may have been the vector of the disease between bats and humans. Pangolins are an endangered species whose scales are highly valued in Chinese traditional medicine. They are the most wildly trafficked mammals in the world and millions die annually as they are shipped from Africa to Asia. Therefore, combatting the illicit trade in wildlife is key to stemming future pandemics.

How do we stop the trafficking of animals like pangolins?

Shelley: We need strategies not just focused on conservation to save wildlife but on the criminal and corrupt supply chains that facilitate this illegal trade if we are to preserve both animal and human life on this planet. This was a major topic of discussion in my illicit trade class this past week.

How has COVID-19 impacted your research?

Shelley: I first noticed the impact of the COVID-19 virus on illicit drug markets in mid-February. At TraCCC, we have been monitoring online websites out of China selling fentanyl. In mid-February, when visiting an online site selling a variety of fentanyl, there was a notice that shipments were temporarily cancelled. The location of the fentanyl advertiser was Wuhan, one of the key production centers of fentanyl in China. The ad noted that it was still possible to make inquiries for future delivery. Shortly after this there was a newspaper report that Mexican drug groups were having difficulty obtaining fentanyl supply.

How can policy analysts and decision makers use this information?

Shelley: Such insights provide fascinating topics for policy analysis. Have criminals in the United States managed to stockpile enough fentanyl in the U.S. to meet demand? Is this disruption of supply affecting the number of fentanyl deaths? These are important questions that do not have answers yet. We need to think about these important questions concerning drugs and accessibility in developing future responses to our very serious drug problem. What happens to addicted Americans in times of stress and shortages? 

How are hackers and corrupt online criminals seizing the moment?

Shelley: Many people have heard of “Zoom bombing,” a new term to explain the hacking into online conference calls. But there are many other lesser known phenomena associated with the COVID-19 crisis. A group of criminals armed with malware—an intangible malicious computer product sold online—hacked into the computer system of a hospital in the Czech Republic treating COVID-19 patients. They demanded money to allow the computer systems to work again.

These are not the only online criminals benefiting from this difficult moment. Frauds online are up as vulnerable individuals, many in isolation, are preyed on. Counterfeit pharmaceuticals and medical supplies are sold online making the efforts to counter COVID-19 even more difficult as these products are often defective.