Covid-19 vaccines: authorities warn against counterfeits

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Fraudsters are taking advantage of the current shortage of vaccines against the coronavirus to sell counterfeits. Especially online, offers reportedly are skyrocketing. A large-scale operation distributing various fake pharmaceuticals from Germany was recently exposed.

Counterfeiters could flood the markets with fake vaccines to profit from the shortage of Covid‑19 vaccination, experts and authorities around the world are currently raising alarm. Europol, for example, reported already back in December 2020 that counterfeit vaccines could enter the market; the agency knows of a first case of a fake Covid-19 vaccines. „A crisis such as this is an ideal situation for organized crime to make money,“ explains Jan Op Gen Oorth, heading communications at Europol. In mid-February, counterfeit coronavirus vaccines were also a topic of discussion at a virtual Europol meeting with senior European police officials.

The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) also reports on first cases of counterfeiters trying to sell illegal goods to governments. And Swissmedic, the Swiss authority for medicines and medical devices, warns: „The fact that people are fearful of certain medicines being in short supply while some may be in urgent need of vaccination is attracting the attention of fraudsters. Fake coronavirus vaccines are already being offered on the internet.“

Outside of Europe, Interpol registered several cases of fraud. It seems that established criminal networks are active as well as newly formed criminal organizations. In China, authorities already broke up a counterfeiting ring for illegal vaccines in November 2020 and arrested 80 people. Further counterfeits have also surfaced in India, for example.

On the dark web, illegal offerings have skyrocketed since the first vaccines were approved in December, according to observations by IT security expert Oded Vanunu of the company Check Point in Tel Aviv, Israel. „We have found suppliers who can deliver tens of thousands of illegal doses,“ Vanunu said. The World Health Organization (WHO) also warns against such offers. Counterfeiters could benefit from the fact that trade in pharmaceuticals is shifting to the Internet due to the coronavirus pandemic. „There‘s a big effect on counterfeit medicine products for other diseases as well,“ said WHO‘s Pernette Bourdillon Esteve. „Not just Covid-19. The whole medical system has been attacked.“

How counterfeiters could operate is also illustrated by the case of an online store for fake pharmaceuticals, which was run out of Munich, Germany, and allegedly sold fakes all over the world. With Operation Hydra, the Bavarian Cybercrime Center and the Munich Customs Investigation Office, together with international partners, investigated the counterfeiting ring. It presumably distributed illegal drugs from Southeast Asia on a large scale – next to alleged Covid-19 drugs also including antibiotics, cancer drugs, as well as erectile dysfunction and diet pills. Reportedly, they delivered containerloads of counterfeit tablets to a free trade warehouse in Singapore; there, the illegal goods were re-packaged according to the online orders received and then shipped internationally via postal services. In October 2020, authorities arrested two suspects, says Thomas Goger, senior prosecutor of the Bavarian Cybercrime Central Office, in a report of German media outlet ARD.

With Operation STOP, the World Customs Organization (WCO) has been connecting customs authorities and manufacturers of medical goods, pharmaceuticals, and vaccines worldwide since April 2020, to share information and act against counterfeiting. 307 million units of illegal medicines and 47 million medical goods have already been removed from markets with dedicated actions, including masks, gloves, tests kits, and disinfectants.

Sources: Das Erste, Europol, SRF, OLAF, Swissmedic

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