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Pfizer says phony COVID-19 vaccines are turning up outside the U.S.

U.S. officials combat COVID vaccine hesitancy
U.S. officials combat COVID vaccine hesitancy... 04:51

Pfizer says it is aware of counterfeit versions of its COVID-19 vaccine, which the drugmaker developed with BioNTech, as criminals seek to cash in on global demand for the shots that continues to outpace supply.

The phony versions of its vaccine were found in Mexico and Poland, a Pfizer spokesperson said in an email to CBS MoneyWatch, confirming an earlier report from the Wall Street Journal about the fakes. The vials recovered in Mexico also had fraudulent labeling, while a substance inside vials in Poland was likely an anti-wrinkle treatment, according to the company.

Pfizer is working with governments, law enforcement, health care providers and others to combat the illegal activity. The pharmaceutical firm urged patients not to buy vaccines online, stressing that no legitimate vaccine is sold that way. People can only get safely and legitimately immunized against the coronavirus at official vaccination sites or at certified health care providers.

"We are cognizant that in this type of environment – fueled by the ease and convenience of ecommerce and anonymity afforded by the Internet – there will be an increase in the prevalence of fraud, counterfeit and other illicit activity as it relates to vaccines and treatments for COVID-19," the Pfizer spokesperson said.

Pfizer's discovery of counterfeit inoculations follows last month's seizure of thousands of phony COVID-19 vaccines in warehouses and manufacturing facilities in China and South Africa, with more than 80 arrested, according to the international policing organization Interpol. 

"Whilst we welcome this result, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine-related crime," Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock, said in a statement last month.

"Serious health hazard"

Investigations into counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines by Interpol and the Department of Homeland Security culminated in last month's raids. The agencies have since warned against buying alleged COVID-19 vaccines online. 

"With criminal groups producing, distributing and selling fake vaccines, the risks to the public are clear: these can include buying a product which not only does not protect against COVID-19, but poses a serious health hazard if ingested or injected. Such products are not tested, regulated or safety-checked," the agencies stated. 

Interpol said it's also received information on fake vaccine distribution and scam attempts targeting health entities such as nursing homes. And late last month, the World Health Organization signaled its concern about criminal groups potentially exploiting the huge unmet global demand for vaccines, noting that some organizations had received "suspicious offers" to supply COVID-19 vaccines.

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A counterfeit vial of COVID-19 vaccine  discovered in Mexico. World Health Organization

"We are also aware of vaccines being diverted and reintroduced into the supply chain, with no guarantee that cold chain has been maintained, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a media briefing. "Some falsified products are also being sold as vaccines on the internet, especially on the dark web, and we are aware of other reports of corruption and re-use of empty vaccine vials."

The WHO in March said it had detected bogus products being "supplied and administered in patients outside authorized vaccination programs" in Mexico during the prior month.  

"Falsified Covid-19 vaccines pose a serious risk to global public health and place an additional burden on vulnerable populations and health systems. It is important to identify and remove these from circulation," the WHO warned in its statement.

Fraudsters looking to make a quick buck appeared early on in the pandemic, with televangelist Jim Bakker and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones among those warned by federal authorities to stop touting phony coronavirus cures.

 

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