Treasure trove of virus ‘cures’

COVID-19 has shaken the world and a vaccine is many months, if not a year or more away – or at all if you ask some experts – which creates scared and vulnerable populations prepared to take risky options. That is borne out in new research, commissioned by the Australian Institute of Criminology and conducted by the Australian National University (ANU), which has revealed a treasure trove of supposed coronavirus ‘cures’ on the dark web.

The dark web is an online network used mainly to sell illegal goods, but it is now awash with fake vaccines and repurposed drugs that cyber criminals claim can treat coronavirus.

Roderic Broadhurst, a professor of criminology, director of ANU’s Cybercrime Observatory and report author, said the dark web gave a revealing glimpse into criminal trends.

“Dark web markets give us a useful window into what sort of trends in criminal entrepreneurial enterprise are happening and … to get ahead of the game so to speak,” he said.

“These kinds of markets are prone to scams and fakes, and what we have seen is COVID-19-related products are unlikely to be exempt.”

He explained that the research was captured during one day in April and analysed 645 listings for 222 unique COVID-19 related medical products across 20 dark net markets. Twelve of those markets had posted coronavirus-related products.

Almost half of the listings were personal protective gear, such as surgical masks, and a third were antiviral or repurposed medications that have been discussed publicly as being possible cures for the virus. Among these was the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine that US President Donald Trump promoted as a cure, despite evidence to the contrary.

Sales of the antibiotic azithromycin, which was touted as a treatment in combination with hydroxychloroquine, accounted for 11 per cent of unique listings.

Six per cent of the listings were fraudulent or untested vaccines, with the most expensive vaccine listed at $24,598. The average cost was $575, SBS reports.

Most of the sellers were shipping from the US or Europe.

The ANU report cautioned that fake vaccines could worsen the spread of the virus because users could behave as if they were immune.

Prof. Broadhurst said that many of the purported vaccines were likely to be material stolen from trials, which raised biosecurity hazard alarms.

He added: “Our concern is that the next frontier could be blood plasma from recovered patients turning up on the dark web. We didn’t find such listings, but there is already demand for it in forums.”

Plasma therapy involves taking blood from a patient who has made a full recovery from the coronavirus and is one of several emerging but unproven therapies.

Royal Australian College of GPs president Dr Harry Nespolon said no-one should be purchasing purported therapies or vaccines on the dark web.

“The only thing that we know that works against COVID-19 at the moment is social distancing and antiviral activity such as coughing into your elbow, regularly washing your hands,” he said.

“When it comes to medications, we know a lot of the medications sourced through unofficial channels are fake. And, as of today, they all don’t work.

“When it comes to vaccines, we know that there are no vaccines available for COVID-19 and, even if there was, vaccines need to be kept refrigerated, so having them delivered by post, even if there was one, would mean that it probably was ineffective.”

Australian Institute of Criminology deputy director Dr Rick Brown said the results would assist law enforcement partners.

Have you been tempted to try untested COVID-19 treatments?

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