Police have this week pounced on hundreds of fake COVID-19 vaccines following a global alert issued by INTERPOL warning vaccines would be a prime target for criminal networks.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, INTERPOL said the South African authorities during an operation seized 400 ampoules – equivalent to around 2 400 doses – containing the fake vaccine at a warehouse in Germiston.
During the operation, police officers also recovered a large quantity of fake 3M masks and arrested three Chinese nationals and a Zambian national.
“In China, police successfully identified a network selling counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines, raided the manufacturing premises, resulting in the arrest of some 80 suspects, and seized more than 3 000 fake vaccines on the scene,” reads the statement.
The investigation was supported and facilitated by INTERPOL’s Illicit Goods and Global Health (IGGH) Programme.
The arrests came just weeks after INTERPOL issued an Orange Notice warning law enforcement to prepare for organized crime networks targeting COVID-19 vaccines, both physically and online.
The alert also included details and images of genuine vaccines and authorized shipping methods provided by pharmaceutical companies to assist in the identification of fake vials.
INTERPOL said this further underlined its unique role in ensuring law enforcement across its 194 member countries.
“Whilst we welcome this result, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine related crime,” said INTERPOL Secretary General, Jürgen Stock
“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.
South African Police Service (SAPS) spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo said: “Since COVID-19 reached the shores of South Africa, the government has adopted an integrated multi-disciplinary law enforcement approach. This, together with our association with counterparts from all INTERPOL member countries, is proving to be very effective as we have seen in the arrests for foreign nationals attempting to peddle fake vaccines to unsuspecting people within South Africa.”
A spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Public Security said the country’s government attaches great importance to vaccine security.
“Chinese police are conducting a targeted campaign to prevent and crack down on crimes related to vaccines, proactively investigating and combating crimes related to vaccines in accordance with law. We will further strengthen the constructive cooperation with INTERPOL and law enforcement agencies of other countries to effectively prevent such crimes,” he said.
INTERPOL said while investigations continue, and in addition to the arrests in South Africa and China, the agency was also receiving additional reports of fake vaccine distribution and scam attempts targeting health bodies, such as nursing homes.
INTERPOL also warned the public that no approved vaccines are currently available for sale online.
“Any vaccine being advertised on websites or the dark web, will not be legitimate, will not have been tested and may be dangerous,” they said. “Anyone who buys these drugs is putting themselves at risk and giving their money to organized criminals.”