Advanced Laser Spectroscopy to detect falsified vaccines

An international consortium of multidisciplinary researchers and specialists has developed a new method to counter the problem of COVID-19 vaccine falsification

There have been numerous instances of vaccine supply chains being infiltrated by falsified products, both for vaccines before the pandemic and for COVID-19 around the globe1. Since the emergence of COVID-19 and its immunisation programs worldwide, there have been over 184 public domain reports across 48 countries of diverted and substandard or falsified COVID-19 vaccines2.

Apart from endangering the public, by not effectively protecting people from COVID-19, these incidences also risk undermining trust in vaccines. As such, it is critically important that we maintain integrity of supply chains by detecting falsified products rapidly and effectively. To address this global health issue of falsified and substandard medical products, the World Health Organization (WHO) Member States adopted a PREVENT, DETECT, and RESPOND strategy.

Currently though, there are no effective, readily accessible systems with rapid turnaround for vaccine identification to screen stocks at multiple locations in the supply chains. The detection of falsified vaccines relies on analysis that can only be performed in specialised laboratories.

In response to the need to develop new methods to screen stocks, a consortium of world leading experts convened in 2020 consisting of representatives from:

  • Oxford University Nuffield Department of Medicine, Department of Biochemistry, Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery and Department of Chemistry
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)
  • World Health Organization, Geneva
  • Agilent Technologies
  • Serum Institute of India
  • University of Huddersfield
  • University of East London

In line with WHO strategy, this multidisciplinary and multi-institutional research consortium has developed a new method of effectively and efficiently detecting falsified vaccines, which is described today (20/10/23) in the journal, Vaccine. Their study demonstrates the viability of handheld Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS) to rapidly authenticate COVID-19 vaccines through unopened vaccine vials.

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. SORS was originally invented and developed into a spinout company by the STFC Central Laser Facility. This company was acquired in 2017 by Agilent Technologies, where the technique continues to be developed for various applications.

"The use of the handheld Resolve's SORS technology for swift and non-intrusive analysis within sealed containers is ground-breaking, attributed to both SORS technology, and the inherent sensitivity of the optical design" said Dr Rob Stokes, Field Detection Marketing Director at Agilent Technologies. "This approach not only advances vaccine authentication but also sets the stage for future high sensitivity analysis within sealed containers across diverse fields.”

SORS devices are currently used to screen for hazardous substances at airports and used widely by fire officers, military, border protection and law enforcement. Only minor modifications in sample compartment and software adaption are required for its deployment to identify falsified vaccines. That SORS can effectively screen for falsified vaccines without opening the vial is a major advantage in terms of speed of detection and ability to use vaccines that pass the SORS testing.


advanced laser spectroscopy

Photo credit: Prof. Paul Newton, Nuffield Department of Medicine, Oxford

The first SORS analysis of a Covid vaccine was carried out at the Oxford Glycobiology Institute, Department of Biochemistry. This was performed using a handheld Agilent Resolve. From left to right: Prof. Pavel Matousek (STFC), Dr. Robert Stokes (Agilent) and Dr. Tehmina Bharucha (then a DPhil student in the Zitzmann lab). This first analysis was done outside the Oxford Glycobiology Institute (in the boot of a car in the rain!) since it was carried out during lockdown in 2020. At the time it was not possible for Prof. Matousek and Dr. Stokes to enter the department since they were external. After this initial experiment at Oxford, all further SORS experiments were carried out in STFC


The Zitzmann lab at the Department of Biochemistry and Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery have been working closely with the SORS team at STFC. All vaccines used in the project are either ordered by the Zitzmann lab or received directly from vaccine manufacturers which are then distributed to STFC for SORS. The Zitzmann lab also aid in making up individual vaccine excipients in vials for SORS tests as well as exposing vaccines to heat to see if STFC can detect substandard vaccines by SORS. Mass spectrometry-based approaches and various low cost tests are also being developed in the Zitzmann lab to detect substandard and falsified vaccines as described here.

“SORS is poised to become an important tool to protect against falsified vaccines” said Professor John Collier, Director of the STFC Central Laser Facility. “Since first being developed at the STFC Central Laser Facility, this innovative technology continues to find new areas of application which could now include empowering governments and healthcare organisations to safeguard public health. It is a prime example of the enormous benefits of responding to global health challenges with strategic technological innovation.”

Although this study focusses only on COVID-19 vaccines, the method it describes may also be used for authenticating other vaccines, liquid, and solid medicines. Further research is needed with more vaccines and to evaluate its effectiveness at various points in supply chains.

With the increasing importance of vaccines for many diseases with pandemic potential and their inequitable distribution, innovative tools to empower inspectors in detecting falsification such as these are a vital asset.

The full study can be read in the latest edition of Vaccine.






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STFC and Bevin Gangadharan
20th October 2023