US govt prepares for COVID-19 vaccine fraud surge

With the first COVID-19 vaccines now nearing approval, the US government is preparing a crackdown on an anticipated spike in falsified and unauthorised medicines by fraudsters.

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) – part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – is launching Operation Stolen Promise 2.0 in an attempt to identify and prevent the production, sale and distribution of illicit COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.

Organised criminals may well try to cash in on pent-up demand for vaccines in particular, tapping into public fears of missing out on the first wave of immunisations when supplies will be limited.

At the same time, many US states are worried they may not have the ancillary supplies they need to administer the shots – like needles, syringes and alcohol pads – which could impede the roll-out, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

It’s quite possible that counterfeit versions of the first wave of vaccines – from the likes of Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech – are already being produced by counterfeiters. Use of online pharmacies has already risen since the start of the pandemic, thanks to lockdown restrictions, and that raises the risk of exposure to a fake product.

HSI says it has been actively working with many of the leading pharmaceutical companies that are currently developing vaccines and treatments to try to minimise illicit sales.

Operation Stolen Promise 2.0 will try to disrupt and dismantle fraud schemes, removing illicit websites and other online marketplaces and seizing counterfeit or illicit vaccines and treatments. 

It is an extension of Operation Stolen Promise, which was launched in April as the pandemic was starting to gather momentum, and targeted financial aid fraud as well as counterfeit and unapproved products.

Since the first operation started, ICE has seized more than $26m in illicit proceeds; made 170 arrests; executed 148 search warrants and analysed more than 69,000 COVID-19 domain names.

Working with US Customs and Border Protection, more than 1,600 shipments of mislabelled, fraudulent, unauthorised or prohibited COVID-19 test kits and other related items have been seized.

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