With critical COVID-19 vaccines in short supply, a black market for fake vaccines has begun to crop up online as criminals look to profit off people seeking an alternative means of securing a dose.
Despite the global race for a vaccine yielding some victories, distribution remains an issue. The slow rollout of vaccines has left long waiting lines for the life-saving drugs, leaving an opening for traffickers and criminals to exploit, often with light legal consequences and significant financial profits.
“On the dark web, traffickers are selling the [COVID-19] vaccine at $1,000 [a piece],” said Bernard Leroy, Director of the International Institute for Research Against Counterfeit Medicine (IRACM).
Trafficking in falsified medicines, including vaccines, is around 20 times less dangerous and 20 times more profitable than drug trafficking, research from the International Institute for Research Against Counterfeit Medicine (IRACM), with the global trade of illicit medicines valued at around $200 billion, according to Leroy.
Fake medicines, including vaccines can "poison the people who use them, fail to generate immunity or cure, and in extreme cases, kill," according to Jeffrey Kemprecos, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Director of Communication, Government Affairs and Market Access for the Gulf Region.
“There is a lot of money to be made with virtually no risk of punishment,” Abigail Jones, Communications Director at the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) explained.
Fake vaccines and medicine more profitable than narcotics
‘Fake’ is popularly used to describe counterfeit, falsified, degraded and suboptimal medical products, including subscription drugs, protective equipment, and vaccines, an illegal industry that has only continued to grow.
“Faking medicines or vaccines is a crime and need to be punished as such … We only see the tip of the iceberg,” Jones warned.
The appearance and circulation of fake vaccines on the global market is a response to high demand and low supply, with criminal groups looking to prey upon people’s urgent need for vaccines and medicine caused by the pandemic’s spread across the world last year.
“During 2020, transnational organized crime switched to falsified medicine because it’s not so dangerous,” added Leroy. “In the world, only around two to three and a half percent of people are taking narcotics. But, of course, 100 percent of the population needs medicine.”
In Europe, Europol has identified scams related to face masks, gloves, medical equipment, COVID-19 test kits, and medicines that were discussed in the past to be helpful to fight COVID-19. These scams have also now begun to shift towards hopes for a vaccine.
“As what was observed at the beginning of the pandemic when criminals were advertising fake ‘corona cures,’ they are now adapting and attempting to exploit the development of the vaccine,” Jan Op Gen Oorth, Europol’s Spokesperson explained.
“Organized crime always goes where the risks are low and profits are high,” he added.
Authorities have also worried about the possibility of criminal gangs intercepting shipments of legitimate vaccine and then selling it on the black market for a profit.
“Supply chains for domestic supply in the countries of India, Egypt, to some extent, China, Brazil, have a higher risk of product diversion,” said Prashant Yadav, lecturer on Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard University. “If I know a large shipment of vaccines is going through the airport of Mumbai, for example, it has to have a lot of security and there could be security lapses.”
Yadav went on to explain that as long as vaccine supplies remain low, the risk of people turning to the black market to purchase a potentially fake vaccine remains high.
Fighting fraudulent vaccines
Given the novelty of the COVID-19 vaccines, experts remain inconclusive about their predictions with one common plea – more unified international efforts via data-sharing and tailored legislation.
In Europe, law enforcement has already focused on combating coronavirus-related crime. Even in the private sector, transport associations are including security risks into the planning of COVID-19 vaccine deliveries, according to Europol.
In the US, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) launched Operation Stolen Promise 2.0 in early December to identify and prevent the production, sale and distribution of illicit COVID-19 vaccines.
However, one of the main problems in stopping criminal activities with ‘fake’ drugs, including those related to COVID-19, is the absence of legal mechanisms to prosecute the wrongdoers. In some countries, the penalty for peddling fake medicine is the same as that of any other fake product – such as bag.
“Many countries are using their laws on counterfeit materials. For example, for the things from the French [brand] Hermes, falsified in Thailand, it’s two months imprisonment. The same law that is applied to counterfeit materials is also applied to [trafficking] falsified medicine,” Leroy explained.
There is a consensus among experts that legislation on counterfeit and substandard medicines, including vaccines, should be made equal to drug trafficking.
Furthermore, the prevalence of fake products could also feed people’s fear and hesitancy in taking a vaccine, Jones said, a problem that experts have previously flagged as a concern in ending the pandemic and returning to normalcy.
“Organized crime doesn’t care, they are able to sell salted water as a vaccine,” Leroy concluded.
Kemprecos added: "Prevention and detection of falsified products is primarily a matter for national governments."
"We are fortunate that in the Gulf region, the authorities are very vigilant in this area and have been very effective in their efforts to prevent the circulation of falsified products."
Fake medical products, including fake vaccines, remain a danger for global public health.