EU countries are being offered fake COVID vaccines via shadowy groups claiming to be intermediaries of drug companies.
Europol, the bloc’s law enforcement agency, is even assisting one EU member state in investigating a case of counterfeit vaccines found in the country’s black market.
“It’s the very first case,” Europol spokesperson Jan Op Gen Oorth told VICE World News. He said that as the investigation is ongoing he could not provide specific details or identify the country. “It seems to be a counterfeit product. And it seems to be very, very close to the original product.”
After a slow initial rollout, some EU member states have taken it upon themselves to diverge from the region-wide vaccination programme and look for vaccines elsewhere. Austria and Denmark are in talks with Israel, while Slovakia has recently signed a deal with Russia for over 2 million doses. Additionally, Hungary has previously pursued such a policy with both Chinese and Russian vaccines.
Up to a billion fake COVID-19 vaccines have been offered to EU countries, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has previously warned. Now experts are warning that the black market for fake vaccines and COVID test certificates in the EU will only grow if the vaccination programme continues to stall across the region.
“An economic crisis, in combination with the public health crisis, as we have it at the moment, is perfect for organised crime,” Op Gen Oorth said.
Last December Europol published a report warning that there would be a “likely increase” of fraudulent COVID-19 vaccines on the darknet, and this year a host of EU countries have reported such fears materialising.
Italian authorities have launched an investigation into the attempted black market sale of the Pfizer, Chinese and Russian vaccines to the governor of the northeastern Veneto region, who was approached by supposed intermediaries.
The Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has claimed his country, alongside Austria and Hungry, received an offer of five million vaccine doses from a Dubai-based “intermediary” of AstraZeneca.
The Czech State Institute for Drug Control could not back up the Prime Minister’s claim. “So far, we have not encountered the illegal sale of such vaccines on the Czech market,“ said Klára Brunclíková, the Press Officer for the Institute.
Further adding to the confusion, the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomáš Petříček stated that the country has rejected a more recent offer of one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine made in India that came from the United Arab Emirates. According to the Czech Minister of Health Jan Blatný, this offer came from an intermediary, rather than an official source.
The Austrian Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection, also said that it had been approached with fraudulent batches of vaccines.
“There are a lot of suspicious vaccine offers reaching us these days,” a press officer told VICE World News. “We are not sure which one the Czech Prime Minister is referring to. But in general, we can confirm such offers.”
The German Ministry of Health has reported similar encounters. “As well as other European countries, Germany was offered a batch of possibly fraudulent COVID-19 vaccines in particular from AstraZeneca,” the ministry said in a statement sent to VICE World News.
AstraZeneca denied having anything to do with off-the-grid approaches. “AstraZeneca focuses only on fulfilling deals with states and international organisations,” a spokesperson for the drugs company said. “In the case of the Czech Republic, this would be the deal agreed upon on the level of the EU. With regards to private third party offers outside of such international deals, it is likely that they are fraudulent offers, which should be rejected and reported to the State Institute for Drug Control.”
While the EU’s slow vaccine rollout compared to other Western nations has created a bigger window of opportunity for criminal gangs and the black market, fraud has been a huge issue throughout the pandemic.
“Not just in low-income countries, but in high-income countries as well. It’s very difficult from a regulatory perspective,” said Oksana Pyzik, Lecturer at the UCL School of Pharmacy who has previously researched counterfeit medical goods.. “It’s a difficult problem to stay on top of for that reason, because all of these websites, as soon as you close one down, another one pops up. It’s very much a whack-a-mole problem.”
According to Eurojust — an EU agency dedicated to offering legal assistance to member states in criminal investigations — they have been contacted to support 175 pandemic-related criminal cases.
“We’ve had several cases of the fraudulent sale of face masks or hand gels,” said Eurojust spokesperson Ton van Lierop. “We’ve had a cyberattack on a hospital in the Czech Republic.”
With recent examples of counterfeit vaccine production and trafficking in Mexico, international organisations such as the UN and the World Health Organisation have highlighted the challenges in tackling COVID fraud, as well as the potential danger of fake vaccines entering the local supply chain, which could have consequences to public health.
“I worked in the counterfeiting area for 15 years,” said Marco Musumeci, Program Coordinator at the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), a United Nations institute aimed at researching organised crime across the world. “And I never saw organised crime worry about the product they were selling. I never saw criminals worry about the facts that they were selling injections in Africa that were just made of dirty water. I never saw organised crime worry about that because they want to profit. So why should they care?”
According to Musumeci, supply chains are a particularly important area in need of protection, as infiltrating them can have potentially dangerous consequences. If criminals gain access to the packaging and vials of the vaccines, they could produce counterfeit vaccines in seemingly “legitimate” packaging.
These worries appear to be shared by those working in international supply chains. According to Thorsten Neuman, CEO of the Transported Asset Protection Association (TAPA), since the current vaccine “manufacturing capacities” remain limited, it is possible that criminal elements will target facilities producing and receiving vaccines.
Additionally, Neuman fears that criminals could also potentially seek to misuse discarded packaging. “When we talk about counterfeit products and counterfeit goods, the organised criminals will do everything possible,” he told VICE World News. “For example, they will go to this place to look at the garbage, and then they know exactly what the printing looks like, the dimension, and content of the package and reproduce it.”
It’s an issue the WHO are monitoring, a spokesperson told VICE World News. Although the “risk remains low in Europe” and there are pre-existing frameworks and systems tackling the spread of fraudulent vaccines, a potential vaccine shortage could fuel fraudulent activity within the black market. “Constrained access to authorized Covid-19 vaccines, combined with ineffective regulatory systems has the potential to further drive illicit activity such as diversion and smuggling,” the organisation said.
Similarly to the ways how experts and politics have emphasised the need for a collective vaccination strategy, Pyzik believes COVID-related fraud should be tackled in a unified manner.
“A more coordinated and united approach globally, what the WHO has been calling for repeatedly, would be a strong enough incentive to limit the effectiveness at which the organised criminal groups and individual actors could be successful in their business, because they are doing it for money, for profit,” Pyzik added.
Nevertheless, until vaccines are successfully distributed across the EU member states, authorities such as Europol have stressed the need to remain vigilant. Yet this remains a race against the time, as the best solution in tackling a potential growth of a black market remains a fast and successful vaccination programme.
“One solution would definitely be to have as many vaccinations carried out as quickly as possible, so people don’t feel a need to buy that stuff anymore,” said Op Gen Oorth, the Europol spokesperson. “The quicker the vaccination is carried out, the better, because then you don’t have a market anymore for criminals.”