One ad from the darkweb. Screenshot via the author
The United Kingdom ordered 40 million doses of Pfizer/BioNTech’s much-lauded coronavirus vaccine in the lead up to next week, when the nation will become the first in the world to make the drug available for general use. Some 800,000 doses are expected to arrive within the next few days; a further 10 million will become available shortly thereafter; and at least 50 hospitals across the country are preparing for the staggered roll-out.
Nations around the world are watching in eager anticipation as they wait to secure their own regulatory approval for the shot, which is said to offer up to 95 percent protection against Sars-CoV2. For some countries, however, the process could take months. And yet in certain corners of the Internet, the “Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine” is already being listed for sale.VICE World News found multiple vendors on the darknet who appeared to be selling doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to global customers for as much as $1,300 a piece. “The doses of the COVID-19 vaccine has [sic] been developed by Pfizer and BioNTec,” reads the description of one such product. “We can deliver in any country.”At least two vendors that VICE World News spoke to over Wickr claimed to be pharmacists, insisting that they acquired the vaccine through the government and had already sold it to multiple customers. One claimed to have a stockpile of some 560 doses.When asked for proof of their qualifications and photographic evidence of the product, both refused. Later, one of them sent a high-quality stock image of a vial labelled “Coronavirus Vaccine”.This kind of pandemic profiteering is nothing new. In April, VICE World News found multiple darknet vendors selling what they claimed to be the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients for nearly $16,000 per liter, promising prospective buyers “a life immunity against coronavirus”. Then, in September, another vendor on the same marketplace advertised at-home COVID testing kits—claiming he’d made more than $1.4 million selling them to under-resourced hospitals.
Even “vaccines” have been advertised in darknet marketplaces since as early as April, along with an ever-expanding cornucopia of spurious remedies, tonics and tinctures. Now though, as countries continue to set new records for daily infections, demand is at an all-time high.So what are the chances that people are actually selling the coveted Pfizer vaccine online? And what would that mean for those around the world who are desperate to skip the queue and immunise themselves against COVID as soon as possible?Dr Barbara Mintzes, associate professor at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and School of Pharmacy, urged consumers to be cautious.“There are so many red flags here, it's hard to know where to start,” she told VICE World News over the phone. “Even just on the regular Internet, there's that whole question of: if a person is buying a prescription medicine or something like a vaccine, are they actually getting what they think they're getting? There's absolutely no assurance.”“This is a particularly odd one,” Dr Mintzes added, “in the sense that the vaccine needs to be kept at minus-70 degrees centigrade. And this is before it has even been rolled out for use in the UK.” In other words: a vial of Pfizer isn’t something that can be shipped out in the post, and it’s unclear how exactly these sellers—pharmacists or not—are getting their hands on the drug in the first place.
Even if we assume that the “Pfizer vaccines” being sold on darknet marketplaces are the real deal though, Dr Mintzes noted that there are a whole raft of ethical and public health issues that arise from that. For one: the problem of diminishing supply.The UK has currently designated an “emergency use” authorisation for the Pfizer vaccine, which temporarily covers a limited number of specific batches of the drug. Those batches are supposed to be meted out according to a tiered approach, whereby those most in need—the elderly and the vulnerable, as well as frontline health workers—are given priority.By putting a strictly limited and potentially life-saving vaccine up for grabs on the free market, darknet vendors would effectively be snatching the medicine away from those most in need and offloading it to their high-paying customers. Which leads to the second issue.“The problem with just leaving it open for private market sales is that you will then end up with a situation where people's economic situations, their wealth, would determine who gets the vaccine first, rather than those who necessarily need it,” Dr Mintzes explained. “And particularly in a situation like a public health emergency, that is not the best way to get the best bang for your buck from vaccinations.”Further to that, and assuming these products really are Pfizer vaccines, Dr Mintzes pointed out that “there’s not even a single published study describing the results of the clinical trials for the vaccine. So how much we know in terms of what it does and doesn't do is very limited: there are a lot of unknowns in terms of the effectiveness, let alone the safety.”
This element of danger becomes greater still in the likely event that it’s all just a hoax. Beyond the possibility that undiscerning buyers could become victims of a fraudulent sale, there’s no telling what’s really in the vials that darknet vendors are selling. Dr Mintzes compared it to when people buy Viagra online, not knowing whether what they’re taking is a toxic substance. But in this case, even if it isn’t, there’s the added risk that someone will end up walking around thinking they’re vaccinated against COVID-19, when in fact they’re anything but.It’s worrying on multiple levels—and according to Dr Mintzes, it’s something that deserves the attention of authorities and regulators.“I don't know how many people would actually be going on to the dark web to buy vaccines, but it does sound to me like the kind of thing that actually needs a regulatory response,” she said. “If it's fraudulent activity because they're not really selling the vaccine at all, then that's one kind of regulatory response; if they're actually selling the vaccine, as a pharmacist, then there's a whole bunch of levels in which this is an unethical and criminal activity.”“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” she concludes. “One side is that from a public health perspective, there's a very good reason the vaccine is being rolled out the way it is. The second side is that you have absolutely no guarantee that you would be getting the actual product. And then the other side is that it's actually encouraging unethical activities.”Follow Gavin on Twitter