Report: Pfizer Finds Counterfeit COVID-19 Vaccine Shots Abroad

According to a report by The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Pfizer said that in Mexico and Poland, it found that criminals, trying to profit off the need for vaccines, had tried to pass off fake COVID-19 vaccines as real ones.

Authorities in several separate investigations confiscated vials that were later tested by the company. It was confirmed that the vials were filled with fake vaccine doses. Pfizer said in Mexico, the vials also had incorrect labels, whereas the vials seized in Poland were likely filled with anti-wrinkle treatment.

The Journal reported, “Pfizer tested the liquid in the vials purported to be its Covid-19 vaccine at its laboratory in Groton, Conn., finding it lacked key ingredients and instead contained hyaluronic acid, which is used in skin products.” Authorities in Poland said that nobody had gotten the fake vaccine there as it was confiscated from a man’s apartment.

“About 80 people at a clinic in Mexico received a fake vaccine going for about $1,000 a dose, though they don’t appear to have been physically harmed. The vials, found in beach-style beer coolers, had different lot numbers than those sent to the state, and a wrong expiration date, said Dr. Manuel de la O, the health secretary of Nuevo León state,” the outlet reported. “People were injected with distilled water,” Dr. de la O said in a phone interview with the Journal.

The discoveries are the latest development in ongoing work between law enforcement and drug companies like Pfizer, Moderna Inc., and Johnson & Johnson to cut down on criminal acts that are focused on exploiting the global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. 

“Everybody on the planet needs it. Many are desperate for it,” said Lev Kubiak, Pfizer’s world head of security. “We have a very limited supply, a supply that will increase as we ramp up and other companies enter the vaccine space. In the interim, there is a perfect opportunity for criminals.”

The United States, Mexico, and other countries have taken action to shut down dozens of fraudulent websites that are pretending to have a connection with top vaccine makers or inaccurately claiming to sell vaccine doses, according to government authorities and records. The outlet reported, “The fake, company look-alike websites appeared to be seeking consumers’ personal information to be used in identity fraud schemes, government and industry officials say.”

Up to this point, no fake vaccines have been found in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security, the outlet reported. However, in other countries, where there are fewer vaccines available and many people who need them, people can go looking for vaccines using unofficial means. Black markets are especially prevalent in places where there are high levels of coronavirus cases and a historical practice of selling fake prescription medication, according to security experts who spoke to the Journal. 

“Whenever you see this mismatch between demand and supply in certain areas, there are people who are willing to fill that difference with counterfeits,” said Tony Pelli, a consultant with BSI Group who focuses on drug security. “For new drugs, it’s usually just a matter of time before you see people trying to counterfeit them.” 

Giving out fake COVID-19 vaccine doses is not as hard as stealing real shots to sell later because of the intense security efforts that countries and drugmakers have taken during the pandemic, said Pelli. “With counterfeits, you kind of can just show up, and say, ‘Here’s Covid vaccines, we’ve got some, don’t ask how,’ and start distributing them,” Pelli said.

Large drug companies use teams of security personnel made up of previous law enforcement authorities who assist in the training of government agencies and aid in investigations regarding fake prescription medication, the Journal reported. Companies have been working since last year to try and combat the potential rise in scams regarding COVID-19 vaccinations. 

“We’ve never seen so much fraud and misinformation and schemes,” said Steve Francis, director of the IPR Center, which has opened over 35 cases related to COVID-19 vaccine fraud.

“Patients should never try to secure a vaccine online — no legitimate vaccine is sold online,” said Pamela Eisele, communications director for Pfizer.

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