Saving Lives: Mason Researchers, 3M Recognized with a Major Award for Disrupting Counterfeit PPE

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Louise Shelley smiles for the camera.
Louise Shelley: ‘This collaboration with 3M represents a new research model that combines policy and technology in support of American industry and human life.’

Health care and consumer goods corporation 3M was recognized by the World Trademark Review (WTR) with its 2021 North America Team of the Year Award for its role in keeping more than 52 million counterfeit medical respirators out of the legitimate supply chain. WTR is an independent news and information and intelligence service reporting on trademark issues.

In accepting the award, Collette Durst, the chief trademark counsel of 3M, acknowledged the role a multidisciplinary team of researchers at George Mason University played in preventing the fraudulent PPE devices from reaching first responders and medical personnel.

“We entered into a partnership with George Mason University which has played a key role in helping us ‘connect the dots’ with our global cases,” she said.

The research, which combines the expertise of scholars at Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government and the Volgenau School of Engineering, is funded by a five-year National Science Foundation grant that started in October 2020.

“This award recognizes our critical contribution to getting counterfeit medical masks out of circulation in the United States and globally,” said Louise Shelley, founding director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and a University Professor at Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government. “We are proud of our role in helping remove these dangerous counterfeits from the medical supply chain. This is research with a powerful human impact in saving lives.”

The scope of the problem is enormous, Shelley said.

Edward Huang gazes at the camera.
Edward Huang

“Whereas supply chains for normal consumer goods have been disrupted globally during the pandemic, this harmful counterfeit trade has expanded exponentially,” she said. “Many producers of consumer goods shifted to counterfeit mask production and moved hundreds of millions of counterfeit inferior masks through global supply chains. In the worst cases, the confiscated masks examined by our team at Mason consisted of just covered tissue paper stamped with the 3M logo.”

The WTR award recognizes the importance of a multinational Fortune 100 company collaborating with research scientists in providing advanced data analysis in order to save lives internationally during a global health crisis, Shelley said.

The 3M team and Mason researchers were cited for helping law enforcement officials in seizing more than 52 million counterfeit respirators. The teams’ work also contributed to the removal of more than 23,900 fraudulent e-commerce offerings; removing more than 23,200 false or deceptive social media posts; and the take down of more than 365 deceptive domain name addresses.

Mason research and data analysis was also used in the prosecution of those allegedly responsible for the fraud. “This project has required many long nights as the team worked on time-sensitive data,” said Shelley.

Photo of Layla Hashemi
Layla Hashemi

As an example, Shelley pointed out that 2 million bogus medical facemasks were removed from circulation before entering into the supply chain for those treating COVID-19 patients in a state wracked by the pandemic thanks to a ruling by a federal judge after reviewing insights developed by the Mason team. 

The Mason team includes University Professor Shelley as principal investigator (PI); co-PI Edward Huang, an associate professor at the Volgeneau School of Engineering; postdoctoral researcher fellow Layla Hashemi of the Schar School; and cybersecurity undergraduate, Ahna Mohiuddin.

“This collaboration with 3M represents a new research model that combines policy and technology in support of American industry and human life,” Shelley said.

The research was conducted under the NSF grant D-ISN: Collaborative Research: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding, Modeling, and Disrupting Drug and Counterfeit Illicit Supply Chains (Grant No. 2039779).