Hyderabad: As biotech companies are racing against time to bring out a successful vaccine against the coronavirus, organised crime syndicates too are working overtime to come out with convincing counterfeit vaccines.
According to a recent warning issued by the European Union’s law enforcement agency Europol, organised crime syndicates were adapting their methods and product offerings to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The expected arrival of a genuine Covid-19 vaccine has already inspired criminal activities and will likely be exacerbated once vaccines become available,” it said, adding that the first indications had come when the World Health Organization (WHO) detected a falsified influenza vaccine in Mexico in October.
“The detection of a fake influenza vaccine confirms that criminals seize opportunities as soon as they present themselves. Owing to the pandemic, the demand for the influenza vaccine has been higher than usual and there risks being a shortage. Criminals have reacted quickly by producing counterfeit influenza vaccines. The same scenario is also likely to happen when Covid-19 vaccines do become available. Criminals may attempt to exploit the current global focus on Covid-19 vaccines and spread disinformation about vaccines to defraud individuals and companies,” the Europol said.
“When a Covid-19 vaccine does become available, it will likely not be available for sale online. However, fraudulent pharmaceutical products advertised as allegedly treating or preventing Covid-19 are already on sale, both offline and online,” it added.
The warning, part of a note on vaccine-related crime during the pandemic, also said some dark web markets were featuring advertisements for fake Covid-19 vaccines. “The number of offers is limited at this stage but will likely increase once a legitimate vaccine becomes available. Criminals advertise their fake vaccines using the brands of genuine pharmaceutical companies that are already in the final stages of testing. Once a legitimate vaccine enters the market, counterfeited versions of the specific vaccine brand are expected to circulate rapidly,” it said.
“Genuine Covid-19 vaccines will be highly valuable commodities, and their supply chains (storage, transportation and delivery) will be at risk of being targeted by criminals seeking to obtain these pharmaceutical products. Organised crime groups might target transit containing Covid-19 vaccines for hijacking and theft,” Europol said.
Why counterfeit is bad
Counterfeit Covid-19 vaccines may represent a significant public health threat if they are ineffective at best or toxic at worst, given their production in underground labs without hygiene standards. Fake vaccines may even have a wider-reaching impact if new outbreaks emerge in communities that are assumed to be vaccinated, the note said, adding that counterfeit vaccines may circulate on illicit markets or be introduced to the legal market, as occurs regularly with other counterfeit pharmaceuticals.
It also noted that high demand may prompt people to seek out alternative sources of the vaccine rather than government-sanctioned vaccination programmes.
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