European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has warned member states that getting supplies of COVID vaccines from illicit trade entails considerable risks for human health.
“I’ve heard of incidents and that doses have been offered,” the head of the EU executive told a press conference on Wednesday (17 February), adding that there is a growing number of cases of fraud and fraud attempts related to the vaccines.
She said the Commission is fighting this trend, supporting the efforts of the European anti-fraud office OLAF, who is currently investigating and giving member states advice on how to identify vaccine-related fraud.
“Our goal is to bring [fraudsters] to justice and to really go in-depth in these matters,” von der Leyen said.
On Monday, OLAF said in a note that several cases have been reported of fraudsters offering to sell vaccines to governments struggling with the slow roll-out of vaccines needed to innoculate their citizens.
“In a crisis like this, you will always have people who seek to benefit or profit from the problems of others,” said von der Leyen.
According to OLAF, fraudsters are offering to supply governments with large quantities of vaccines, showing a sample in order to pocket the first advance payment and then vanishing with the money.
For von der Leyen, being offered such products by unknown traders offers no guarantee that the vaccine is really in the vial.
The anti-fraud office also said that fraudsters may deliver batches of fake vaccines, or may purport to represent a legitimate business and claim to be in the possession of or have access to vaccines.
“If you buy vaccines on the black market, you take the risk if anything happens,” von der Leyen warned governments, adding that there is no assurance, for instance, whether the cold chain distribution necessary with complex vaccines like the mRNA ones has been respected.
She also recalled that a vaccine consists of injecting a biologically active substance into a human being and introducing another substance would constitute a huge responsibility.
Last week, the Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Andrej Babiš told the Czech parliament that together with three other EU leaders, he was offered to sign separate COVID-19 vaccine agreements, outside of the EU deal framework.
“While AstraZeneca was refusing to deliver to the EU 80 million doses, we received repeated offers of this vaccine – not only me but three other prime ministers in Europe – even before the start of deliveries [to the EU],” Babiš told Czech lawmakers, referring to an offer that came from an intermediary from Dubai.
British-Swedish pharmaceutical AstraZeneca denied it had offered anyone in the EU separate deals for COVID-19 vaccines.
“Our current focus is delivering on our substantial global commitments to governments and international health organisations, as quickly as possible to help end the pandemic; as such there is currently no private sector supply, sale or distribution of the vaccine,” AstraZeneca told EURACTIV.
“If someone offers private vaccines, it is likely counterfeit, so it should be refused and reported to local health authorities,” the company added.
In Italy, two intermediaries of pharmaceutical companies reportedly offered 27 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to the north-eastern Veneto region.
“Our hope is to have discovered a new supply way, which all Italy can benefit from,” said Veneto President Luca Zaia of the right-wing Northern League.
Italian daily La Stampa reported that one million doses have been offered by a Brasilian trader to Italy’s special commissioner for COVID-19, Domenico Arcuri, as well as to the country’s Lombardy region.
Both AstraZeneca and Pfizer strongly denied they are supplying the private market, and stressed that during the pandemic they do contracts only with governments.
In the press conference on Wednesday, EU health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides confirmed once again that the EU’s Medicines Agency (EMA) has not yet received an application for a rolling review or for conditional market authorisation for Russia’s Sputnik vaccine.
“We still wonder why Russia is offering, theoretically, millions and millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating the own people?” commented von der Leyen.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]