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23rd Sep 2021

EU fraud agency warns governments on vaccine scams

  • Vaccine deliveries to Bulgria. Europol warned in December that criminals might target such vaccine transports (Photo: European Commission)

The EU's anti-fraud agency warned the bloc's governments on Monday (15 February) for vigilance on offers that promise to provide them with Covid-19 vaccines, as the 27 countries seek a faster vaccine roll-out.

These offers are often false, the EU's anti-fraud agency OLAF warned, and should be reported.

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The agency also said it will step up efforts to share such information among the member states.

"We are hearing reports of fraudsters offering to sell vaccines to governments across the EU," Ville Itälä, director-general of OLAF said in a statement.

Itälä said the offers come in many forms, for instance, criminals may offer to sell large quantities of vaccines, deliver a sample in order to pocket the first advance payment and then vanish with the money.

Fraudsters might also deliver batches of fake vaccines, or they may falsely pretend to represent legitimate business and claim to be in the possession of, or have access to, vaccines.

"They are hoaxes organised to defraud national authorities looking to step up the pace of vaccination to keep their citizens safe. They must be stopped as quickly as possible," Itälä added.

The EU has been criticised for what some governments see as a sluggish roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines, in comparison with other parts of the world.

The EU commission has signed contracts with different pharmaceutical giants for more than 2 billion doses of various coronavirus vaccines.

Three of them have been approved for use but delivery of some consignments has been disturbed by production delays.

So far, only Hungary has sought to purchase vaccines - from Russia and China - outside of the EU contracts.

OLAF said it expanded its operations to look into illicit trade of Covid-19 vaccines - possibly carried out by illegally importing them into the EU territory or through the marketing of counterfeit medicines.

Last week, Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš said four EU governments were offered speedier access to AstraZeneca vaccines through an intermediary from Dubai with a 50-percent prepayment.

The company denied it had made such offer, saying it was a scam.

When asked by EUobserver about the case mentioned by the Czech prime minister, OLAF press office said in an email that the agency had received information from several EU member states about offers of Covid-19 vaccines.

"Most of these offers are assessed as suspicious after analysis of the parties involved. To date, all these different offers together already represent over 250 million vaccines for a total asking price of more than €2 billion," OLAF press office said.

"After analysis of the parties involved, most offers have been flagged as fake. A small proportion of the offers could not yet be defined as fake or real. OLAF's enquiries into these are ongoing," the agency's press office added.

OLAF is in contact with the Member States that received those offers and is supporting them in analysing the available data.

The EU's police agency Europol warned in December about the risk of organised crime scams linked to Covid-19 vaccines.

Catherine De Bolle, Europol chief and former federal police chief in Belgium, said in an interview that Europol has already warned EU countries to be very vigilant.

"There is a real risk that criminal groups are trying to exploit the need for vaccine for their crimes," she said, adding that fraudsters might never deliver promised vaccines after the payment, or the vaccines on offer are fake. Criminals might also try to hijack shipments of vaccines, she warned.

Since opening the investigation last March into Covid-related products, OLAF said that it had helped identify over 1,000 suspicious operations and seize over 14 million items, including faulty face masks and fake test kits.

The EU aims to vaccinate 70 percent of its adult population by September, as governments are under pressure to open up their damaged economies once inoculations reach a sufficient level.

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The World Health Organization warned of a surge in new coronavirus infections across Europe, pointing out healthcare systems should not be under pressure in some countries. Meanwhile, the European Medical Agency is reviewing Russia's Sputnik vaccine.

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The European Medicines Agency said that there is no urgent need to administer booster shots to the general population, pointing out that the priority now should be to vaccinate the one-third of Europeans who are not fully vaccinated.

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