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Fake vaccines are like liquid gold
In early February, vaccine fever was running high in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, about 80 miles from the U.S. border. Mexico’s vaccination rollout had slowed down drastically while its northern neighbor’s picked up speed. Many of Monterrey’s wealthy residents were flying to cities like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio to get their shots. Others, equally desperate, bought Pfizer shots from a local private clinic for $500 to $1,200. But on Feb. 17, the city’s health authority responded to a complaint about the clinic’s operations, raided the site, and discovered the vaccines were fakes. Police found the pirated shots stored inside beer coolers with faulty expiration dates and different batch numbers from the Pfizer doses distributed by the federal government.
Mexico has long battled with a black market of stolen, adulterated, and expired medicines. The size of this illicit market is hard to measure, but estimates valued it in $550 million in 2012. Now, the coveted COVID-19 vaccines have joined the list of profitable drugs entering the market illegally through scams that endanger the lives of its victims.
Since January, the country’s health regulatory agency, COFEPRIS, has issued six health alerts against the illegal sale of a long list of counterfeit AstraZeneca, Cansino, Moderna, Sinovac, Sinopharm and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines. (Sinopharm and Moderna shots aren’t even available in Mexico.) The fakes are mostly sold online, particularly through social media, according to COFEPRIS, but the health agency also advices the population not to buy vaccines offered at any pharmacy, hospital, shop, or through the phone. Mexican officials have brought down at least 2,300 websites and social media pages offering essential health products since the pandemic started, ranging from COVID-19 tests, oxygen tanks, medicine like ivermectin, and COVID shots. For instance, in January, Mexican authorities brought down a fake Pfizer Mexico site that was offering doses for about $150.
COVID-19 vaccines shouldn’t be “for sale” anywhere in Mexico—only the government is authorized to vaccinate the population. The large demand for the shots and slow distribution, coupled with a pressing sense of urgency from the population and the high levels of impunity behind this illicit trade, are all creating prime conditions for a dangerous black market.
Widespread access to a COVID vaccine couldn’t come soon enough in Mexico, a country with the highest fatality rate of observed cases in the world. As of May 12, the pandemic has left an official death toll of 219,323, but as many as 329,965 according to excess deaths. In 2020 the economy experienced its sharpest decline since the 1930s, threatening to push millions of people further down into poverty. And while Mexico keeps buying and administering vaccines, the number of vaccinated people remains low—close to 11 percent of its population has received at least one dose.
“Fake vaccines are like liquid gold,” said Raul Sapien, president of the National Council of Private Security, CNSP in Spanish, an association of private security companies that follows this problem closely. The market of substandard and falsified medical products grew during the pandemic due to shortages in the global supply chains for them and high demand. Mexico’s informal sector, which makes up one-quarter of its economy and 56.8 percent of workers, stepped up to fill the void. The sale of counterfeit products takes place in unregulated public markets across the country where all kinds of pirated goods abound, like San Felipe and Tepito in Mexico City. The authorities are aware of these hotspots, yet they are allowed to operate openly, in plain daylight, and without any legal consequences, says Sapien. Senators are proposing legislation that would sentence those who specifically commercialize counterfeit COVID vaccines to as many as 22 years in prison, but Sapien argues the same should go for the whole black market. “Health is a human right, and someone who sells you a fake COVID shot is putting you in as much danger as someone who sells you a fake medicine,” he said.
Another prominent case of vaccine fraud took place on March 17, when Mexican armed forces confiscated 5,775 doses of what looked like the Russian “Sputnik V” vaccine hidden inside a cooler, under iced Coca-Cola cans, which had been headed to Honduras on a private jet. The vaccines belonged to one of Central America’s wealthiest businessmen, Mohamad Yusuf Amdani, owner of Grupo Karim’s, a conglomerate of real estate, textile factories, and hotels in the region, including in Campeche, Mexico, where the jet was taking off, with Grupo Karim’s executives on board. A day after the seizure, Russian authorities announced the vaccines were fake, and Mexican officials followed suit after opening an investigation. But none of the people on the jet were detained in Mexico. Grupo Karim’s released a statement saying none of the executives on the plane have been charged with a crime and that they had no intention of smuggling the vaccines into Honduras illegally.
After the seizure of the shots, local media revealed that between 1,000 and 4,000 Grupo Karim’s workers in Campeche had been vaccinated with an unknown substance purporting to be the Sputnik V vaccine. Grupo Karim’s has not confirmed or denied the vaccination of its workers or that the seized vaccines were fakes, and Mexican investigators have not revealed what was in the confiscated vials.
When it comes to the identifying counterfeit medicines, the pharmaceutical industry plays a major role in picking out fake or robbed products, says Rafael Gual Director of Mexico’s National Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry. It’s the companies that keep track of counterfeit medicines by monitoring how their products are doing on the market and thus detecting anomalies. They often report to the authorities. Pfizer, for example, features a warning about the falsified jabs on its Mexican website (the real one) and offers the option to report the fakes. When trucks carrying medicines are intercepted by criminal groups on the highway and robbed, it’s the pharmaceutical industry, mostly distributors, who file police reports.
“More than 8 million Mexicans consume stolen, manipulated, or expired medicines every year, which is a serious problem for everyone,” said Gual, who isn’t particularly worried about an increase of fake COVID-19 vaccines. As Mexico accelerates the rollout, the black market for the shots will end, he said. But estimates for when the country’s national vaccination plan will get to people 39 years old and under range from June all the way to March 2022. Long wait times and limited supply could mean more scams attracting the least informed or the most desperate.
And the market for fake medicines goes far beyond Mexico. In a 2017 report, the World Health Organization reported that in low- and middle-income countries, there is a a 10.5 percent failure rate for substandard or falsified medical products, costing these nations an estimated $30.5 billion a year. Ten and a half percent may seem low, but behind these figures are thousands of deaths and serious adverse effects on patients worldwide. So far, Mexican authorities have not announced negative consequences for the victims of COVID-19 vaccine scams but continue to emphasize on the many dangers of receiving a shot outside official channels. The Pan American Health Organization issued a warning for fake COVID-19 shots in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil and called on the population not to put themselves at risk by buying vaccines in the market. These are Latin America’s largest economies, one reason they could be experiencing counterfeits. Pfizer has also identified faked shots in Poland.
Apart from further cracking down on the criminal networks that control the black market for counterfeit medicines and strengthening due process, Josue Bautista, president of the Mexican Association of Pharmacovigilance, believes more needs to be done to raise awareness about the potential harms of consuming fake medicines—harms that include both thinking you are getting protection or treatment when you’re not, and the potential dangers of unknown substances entering your body. “Everyone is susceptible to this kind of scams,” Bautista said. His organization tracks the illegal sale of medicines and is also involved in campaigns to educate the population and make information accessible to those who COFEPRIS doesn’t reach. He hopes information will prevent people from falling for scams and invite them to report these illicit activities.
Mexican authorities and the pharmaceutical industry urge the population to report fakes, but the fact is they are standing against a grim reality. Only 6 percent of all crimes in Mexico are reported and less than 1 percent are resolved. Public distrust in the justice system and a pervasive mix of impunity and corruption help keep this giant black market alive.
About 80 people are believed to have received fake COVID-19 shots from the private clinic in Monterrey. They didn’t get immunity to a deadly virus, but they were still lucky. They only got a costly shot of distilled water into their bodies. Six people were detained for this crime, but it’s possible others will be as bold as to follow their footsteps and get away with it.
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