March 10, 2021

Illegal sales of coronavirus vaccines are surging online—but are the vaccines real?

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    Illegal online sales of purported coronavirus vaccines have surged over the past few months. While most of these vaccines are fake, some appear to be real, according to a recent study by cybersecurity firm Kapersky.

    New toolkit: Covid-19 vaccine communications readiness assessment

    Interpol warns of crime related to coronavirus vaccines

    In December 2020, Interpol warned that crime related to coronavirus vaccines would likely grow "with the pandemic having already triggered unprecedented opportunistic and predatory criminal behavior."

    On March 3, Interpol followed up on that warning with a report showing South African authorities had recently seized 400 vials—containing about 2,400 doses—of fake coronavirus vaccines in Johannesburg, in additional to a supply of fake 3M face masks. Meanwhile, authorities in China seized a large supply of fake vaccines and arrested about 80 suspects during a raid on a manufacturing site.

    "Whilst we welcome this result, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Covid-19 vaccine related crime," Jürgen Stock, Interpol Secretary General, said in a statement. "Following our warning that criminals would target the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, both on and offline, Interpol continues to provide its full support to national authorities working to protect the health and safety of their citizens."

    Interpol has also warned that coronavirus vaccines cannot be purchased online and has asked the public to report any instances of criminal activity. "In addition to the dangers of ordering potentially life-threatening products, an analysis by the Interpol's Cybercrime Unit revealed that of 3,000 websites associated with online pharmacies suspected of selling illicit medicines and medical devices, around 1,700 contained cyber threats, especially phishing and spamming malware," Interpol said.

    Study finds some illegally sold coronavirus vaccines may be real

    Amid this surge in illegal activity, new research from Kapersky finds that 15 different dark web marketplaces have together sold "hundreds" of doses of what they market as Covid-19 vaccines—up to 30% of which may be real doses, CBS News reports.

    "There is evidence that suggests some of these sellers are providing real doses," Dmitry Galov, a Kapersky researcher, who led its study of online vaccine sales, said. "There are pictures of packaging and medical certificates. It looks like some of these people do have inside access to medical institutions."

    And while most of the sellers appear to be unsophisticated, marketing only a few doses each, some sellers have completed as many as 500 transactions. Kapersky opted not to publish the names of any of the marketplaces included in the study so as to avoid unintentionally encouraging people to try to buy doses.

    Galov added that vaccine prices have increased recently—with some selling for as much as $1,200 per dose—and that all sales are conducted using cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, which makes the transactions difficult to track. However, the study did find that at least some of the sellers claimed to be located in the United States, while others said they were located in Europe.

    The study also found that fake vaccination cards and forged documents showing a person tested negative for the coronavirus were for sale online, as well as fake treatments for Covid-19.

    Some sellers online made claims saying they created special shipping containers for sending Pfizer's vaccine, which has to be kept as temperatures significantly below zero, the study found. "Sellers are trying to prove (the doses) are not fake," Galov said. "We think some of them are indeed real."

    Lev Kubiak, chief security officer at Pfizer, said while the drugmaker has found some cases in which people have counterfeited Pfizer's packaging, Pfizer hasn't found any instances in which real vaccines were being sold.

    "Pfizer proactively monitors the internet including the dark web, and coordinates with law enforcement," Kubiak said. "We haven't seen any real doses sold in the illicit marketplace."

    Kubiak added, "In the U.S., there is no charge to be vaccinated, and the only vaccine that is being sold in the U.S. is to government agencies. People need to be very careful. As far as we can tell there has been no leakage of doses (outside legitimate vaccination channels)" (Berger, Washington Post, 3/4; Gandel, CBS News, 3/5).

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