by Dorothy Tucker and Carol Thompson
CHICAGO (CBS) -- You've probably heard about counterfeit vaccines for sale on the dark web, but CBS 2 Investigator Dorothy Tucker came across something else related to COVID-19 vaccines that federal authorities are calling a first. It's being sold right out in the open by someone who should know better.
This investigation did not begin with a viewer tip or information from a source. Instead, it came from a concern voiced by someone during a public, educational vaccine webinar co-hosted by the Illinois Attorney General and vaccine maker Pfizer.
Pfizer's Chief Security Officer Lev Kubiak was one of the presenters, speaking out on vaccine fraud.
"One of the things that's important for states to ensure is that the vaccine, empty vaccine vials and the packaging are destroyed," he said.
He warned of the risk if that does not happen.
"If they're just thrown simply in the trash, people will unfortunately, nefarious people will take them out," Kubiak said.
Pfizer expressed concern about the possibility of empty vaccine vials not being disposed of properly. So, what might "nefarious people" do with them? Our guess was probably selling them online. We were right.
We searched online ecommerce platforms and it didn't take long to find someone selling a pair of vials – one each, Pfizer and Moderna – on eBay for $35.
The posting described them as "Used empty vials (contains no drugs)." The post showed 28 pairs had been sold and 9 were still available. There had been 19 views of the post in the past hour when we took the screenshot.
The eBay post and the seller both vanished from the site after we shared what we had discovered with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, who in turn shared it with the Food and Drug Administration.
About a week later, we searched again – this time we found a seller on Craigslist. That seller used the same picture, selling a pair of vials for the same price. But the description was slightly different. This post described the vials as "Empty and sterilized- there is no medicine inside" and advertised them to buyers as a way to "Own a piece of history today."
Plus, there was another clue. This seller appeared to be from Winnetka, a suburb just 19 miles north of Chicago.
We contacted this seller by email first, and we got a phone number. He seemed anxious to sell, texting: "if you pay me by zelle [sic] and provide me your address, for shipping cost of $3, I can send it to you via first class delivery."
We didn't want the vials shipped to us. We wanted to meet this mystery man in person. He texted that he got the vials "from my hospital," and he offered to "bring the vials to work" and meet us at "st [sic] Joseph hospital (2900 lakeshore drive)."
With CBS 2 undercover cameras rolling, we noticed a man in a blue dress shirt walking across the street from St. Joseph to the walking path in the park. It looked like he was carrying something in his hands.
"You want the vials?" he asked our CBS2 producer.
"Yeah," she replied, and she asked, "How many people like me are out there wanting to have these?"
The man answered, "Oh my God, it's a crazy amount, because everybody wants a souvenir, and everything like that."
But this souvenir in the wrong hands could be deadly.
Michael Alfonso is an Assistant Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations and works with the Intellectual Property Rights Center. About empty vaccine vials, he said, "They should not be sold."
"We don't want somebody to take a vial, put some type of substance in it, sell it as if it's a legitimate vaccine," he said.
Fake vaccines, often in vials with fake labels, are already being sold on the dark web for hundreds of dollars.
"The market on the dark web is showing somewhere between $300 and $600 per shot," Mark Ostrowski, Head of Engineering at Check Point Software Technologies, told CBS 2.
And some of those fake vaccine shots are actually going into arms. Washington State's Assistant Attorney General said, "An individual who had announced on Facebook that he had developed a COVID-19 vaccine and offered to vaccinate people at $400 each. In the course of the investigation, he admitted that he had injected 30 individuals with this product."
And, recently, in Mexico, Pfizer confirms 80 people were injected with a counterfeit version of its vaccine for $1,000 a dose.
Mike Yarwood is Managing Director for TT Club's Loss Prevention Department. His company provides insurance for international freight and transport operators. He told us he is aware of the recent news about fake vaccines being sold. He added fraudsters might be on the lookout for genuine Pfizer and Moderna vaccine vials, because "it almost helps to legitimize the counterfeit goods."
Back to the guy selling us the empty vials on the open web. He seemed to know a lot about vaccines.
He explained to us that "Pfizer comes like half a vial full" and that "You have to put saline in it."
When we asked how he knew so much about the vaccines, then came the bombshell.
"Oh, I'm in the pharmacy department," he said.
We asked, "in what capacity?" He answered, "I just basically do some tech work out there. General tech work."
So, we handed over the cash and he handed over the bag.
"What do you plan to do with it, by the way, hang on to it?" he asked.
Our plan was to learn everything we could about who's selling empty vaccine vials online.
On LinkedIn, we found a profile for a Pharmacy director at St. Joseph named Jia Li. He lives in Winnetka. Remember the Craigslist post was from a seller in Winnetka. And we checked — a Jia Li from Winnetka has been a registered pharmacist in Illinois since 1997. But we never found a Jia Li at St. Joseph Hospital, so his LinkedIn page must be fake.
We ultimately found a pharmacist named Jia Li – working three-and-a-half miles away at Thorek Memorial Hospital. We snapped a couple of grainy photos of our seller entering Thorek. Inside, when we asked for Li, we learned he goes by John Li. And we were told we would find him downstairs.
Downstairs, another surprise. John Li is not just any pharmacist. He's the boss, the Director of Pharmacy at Thorek -- which may explain his response after he learned who we were.
"Ok. You're saying I'm in trouble now?" he said.
We don't know how Li got his hands on the empty vaccine vials, but we know he wasn't supposed to have them.
Tajel Patel, the Assistant Director for Pharmacy Services at Mt. Sinai Hospital walked us through what should happen to those vials. After the vaccine is drawn up into syringes to be used for immunizations, the empty vial should be dropped into a special medical waste container, "So that no one can retrieve the vaccine from there or the vial from there," said Patel.
The container's contents get picked up by licensed medical waste haulers.
Mt. Sinai uses Stericycle. Chief Commercial Officer Cory White explained that "Illinois has specific regulations with the Illinois EPA on how waste is handled."
White says vials and syringes are supposed to go into the containers. Those containers are then picked up and the contents are "compacted and crushed down after it's been cooked at high temperatures and high pressure for a period of time." After going through that process, "most of that waste is unrecognizable," he added.
The EPA tracks those containers by required manifest logging, and Stericycle uses barcodes to track them once the containers are in their hands.
Although the Illinois COVID-19 Vaccination Plan clearly states:
Vaccine Packaging Disposal
To maintain security and safety of the vaccines, proper disposal of all vaccine packaging is crucial. If vaccine packaging is not disposed of properly, bad actors can reuse this packaging for nefarious reasons.
• All used/depleted vials should be disposed of in medical sharp's container following disposal protocol.
• Pfizer trays "pizza boxes" should be shredded/destroyed before being disposed.
• All Pfizer shipper boxes should be shipped back to Pfizer utilizing the return mail label included with the shipment.
Li kept the vials and admitted to us he did this with them: "I put on Craigslist, but I didn't sell online. I mean, Craigslist because it has a lot of things for sale."
He made "$600" is what he wrote in a text --- but he claims it went to charity.
"I just thought, since it's an empty vial, I did not think it was a big deal," he said.
But it is a big deal. In addition to disregarding disposal rules outlined in the Illinois vaccination plan, it violates federal guidelines and Board of Pharmacy regulations.
If you think a Director of Pharmacy should have known the guidelines, you're right.
"Yes. They definitely should," said Al Carter, Executive Director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. "The pharmacist, if they were even to say that they didn't know the protocol, then I would seriously call their bluff and say that that's not true," he added.
Even more troubling is that Li advertised the vials as "empty and sterilized." But, when we looked closely, we saw liquid in both vials we bought from him. Pharmaceutical experts tell us, if it's the lifesaving vaccine, there's enough solution in the Moderna vial for two doses.
A Homeland Security Investigations Agent saw the substance too when we turned the vials over to the agency to be tested to learn what it is.
"We'll find a determination on that," the agent said.
When we get answers, we'll follow up.
Thorek Hospital Administration in a written statement said "We are taking the matter seriously and have taken appropriate disciplinary action."
In a separate email, CEO Edward Budd added, "This is an isolated incident by an individual who has expressed remorse and regret."
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