Government, agencies warn of black market COVID vaccine offers

COVID vaccine rollout delays are opening the door to black market operators, government agencies are warning.

Parliament’s joint committee on law enforcement has opened an inquiry into ‘vaccine-related fraud and security risks’, with the home affairs and attorney-general’s departments, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and drug-maker Pfizer warning about vaccine fraud.

“The risk of counterfeit vaccines, such as fake Pfizer vaccines, is potentially exacerbated by concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine,” the Attorney-General’s Department says in one submission.

The New Daily reports that the ACCC’s Scamwatch service received “more than 6400 COVID-related scam reports, totalling nearly $10 million in losses, in the past year”.

“Scamwatch is now specifically warning Australians about vaccine fraud, detailing overseas scams like selling fake vaccine appointments or COVID tests, and even door-to-door fraudsters administering fake vaccines,” the report states.

Read more: Vaccines and the Indian variant of COVID-19

In April, ABC News reported that “dire shortages of oxygen and drugs have seen prices spike on the black market” in India.

Despite being renowned as the “pharmacy of the world”, India did not stockpile antiviral drugs when cases were low. As a result, when infections spiked, the country was under-resourced.

In Mexico, COVID-19 vaccines have joined a long list of drugs “entering the market illegally through scams that endanger the lives of its victims” reports slate.com.

Even in the US, where vaccinations have proceeded with impressive speed, there are issues.

In January, NBC news reported that New York governor Andrew Cuomo threatened to impose fines of up to $1 million and revoke the licences of doctors, nurses and others who ignored vaccine distribution guidelines.

Read more: AMA concerned about serious COVID outbreak

There were reports of big hospital donors getting the vaccine first and of tycoons flying their friends to Florida to be inoculated with doses earmarked for retirement homes.

Kaspersky searched 15 dark net marketplaces, finding advertisements for Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca, and Moderna vaccines, with prices averaging around $US500.

“Medical institutions, pharmacies and hospitals around the world often end the day with ‘leftover’ vaccine doses. It’s not inconceivable that someone working at these facilities could pocket the extra doses and connect with dark web intermediaries to sell them,” Kaspersky.com reported.

Fake vaccination certificates are also in demand.

“European countries are the primary source for these certificates, which help ease lockdown measures for certain individuals and facilitate international travel. A European vaccination record card costs about $20-$25.”

The Australian Strategic Police Institute says the pandemic provides the ingredients for a black market to thrive.

“The vaccines are being produced in large quantities, some supply chains are not secure, and some wealthy people will pay to jump the queue or obtain a preferred vaccine,” it says. “This in turn will lead to corruption of those distributing and administering vaccines and those prepared to trade their priority place in the vaccination queue for money.”

Read more: Astra Zeneca vs Pfizer vaccinations

MP Anne Aly wants a targeted advertising campaign from the government to warn Australians of vaccine fraud. She is worried that scams may increase if Australians struggle to book an appointment.

“A targeted advertising campaign to encourage vaccine take-up should also include information about possible vaccine fraud, including phishing emails or texts,” she told The New Daily.

Pfizer says the pandemic creates an environment where “there will be an increase in the prevalence of fraud, counterfeit and other illicit activity” around vaccines.

The Attorney-General’s Department says: “If not proactively disrupted, vaccine-related scams could undermine the speed and efficacy of Australia’s vaccination program.”

The Cyber Security Co-operative Research Centre says Australia could be “particularly vulnerable to illegal COVID-19 black markets with one of the world’s highest concentrations of dark net drug vendors per capita”.

Deakin University’s Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics says it is “highly likely” that cyber criminals or even “hostile foreign nations” could sell fake vaccines to Australians.

Have you come across dodgy COVID-19 offers? Is the government keeping Australians well enough informed about COVID-19 vaccinations?

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Written by Will Brodie



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