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Jan. 20, 2021, 11:00 a.m. EST

Criminals come out of the woodwork as countries roll out COVID-19 vaccines

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By Ben West

In early December 2020, Interpol issued a warning to its 194 member countries advising law enforcement organizations that criminal groups are targeting the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Dec. 2 notice by the worldwide police-cooperation and crime-control group warned this could include counterfeit vaccines, scams surrounding the sale of vaccines and theft of COVID-19 vaccines. It said that criminal behavior in general has shifted dramatically over the past year to exploit the pandemic.

With the recent approval of several COVID-19 vaccines and several countries already administering shots, criminal groups have numerous means of exploiting  the global vaccination campaign

Criminal groups do not typically traffic in vaccines. Only isolated examples exist of the theft of small batches of vaccines, primarily due to two factors.

First, in the interest of public health, vaccines are typically readily available to the public at either very low or no cost. This means criminal organizations don’t stand to gain much from the sale of stolen vaccines.

Second, vaccines are typically more difficult to store and administer than the pills that criminal organizations more commonly target for pharmaceutical theft.

Between those two challenges, vaccines are much more difficult to fence than medications like opioid pain relievers, anti-anxiety medications or erectile dysfunction treatments commonly targeted for theft. 

Even so, the unprecedented endeavor that is the COVID-19 vaccination campaign will create opportunities criminals can exploit. While most governments are covering the costs of the vaccine in the interest of public health, doses of the vaccine are not readily available to most of the general population. Given limited numbers of doses, most countries are officially  prioritizing front-line health care workers and emergency responders  and older individuals with underlying health issues at higher risk of dying from COVID-19.

Healthy adults in noncritical professions in developed countries will likely have to wait several months, if not longer, before they can obtain the vaccine. For many people in the developing world and emerging market countries, vaccines likely will not be widely available until late 2021 or 2022.

The gap between demand and availability creates the potential for a black market for vaccination earlier than designated by national vaccination programs. Criminal groups are well placed to provide this service for substantial fees.

The second limitation, storage and administration of vaccine doses, is certainly an obstacle, but not an insurmountable barrier, especially by more sophisticated and well-funded organized criminal groups. Of the three vaccines currently approved by major developed countries, two of them (Pfizer /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE +0.60% and Moderna /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA +1.67% ) require storage in freezing temperatures — conditions that are expensive and difficult to maintain.

The third, the AstraZeneca /zigman2/quotes/200304487/composite AZN -0.60% vaccine, can be stored at standard refrigeration temperatures (36-46 F), making it easier to handle and more attractive to criminal organizations looking to steal and fence COVID-19 vaccines.

When it comes to administration, preparing two shots over a couple of weeks is more complicated than taking a pill, but advanced criminal organizations in Japan, Italy, Brazil and Mexico have proven able to hire or coerce medical assistance from professionals in the past.

For example, El Universal reported in July 2020 that  one of the most wanted cartel leaders in Mexico, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes  (aka El Mencho), built his own private hospital in a small town in Jalisco state.

As the Interpol notice suggested, criminal organizations could use multiple tactics to exploit the delta between demand and access to COVID-19 vaccines over the coming year, including:

One of the more direct and scalable ways for criminal actors to bypass national vaccine distribution plans that the Interpol warning did not touch on is to corrupt the health officials who oversee the vaccination process.

Given the challenges of storing and administering the vaccines, criminal actors could use bribery and corruption in tandem with the threat of physical force to gain and sell access to vaccination slots in designated hospitals and clinics.

/zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite
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$617,996
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/zigman2/quotes/200304487/composite
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Volume: 11.38M
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P/E Ratio
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$127.46 billion
Rev. per Employee
$352,484
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