BRUSSELS: The EU's anti-fraud office, OLAF, is urging member states to be vigilant against scammers offering to sell fake COVID-19 vaccines as the 27-nation bloc faces delays in the supply of shots.
In a statement on Monday (Feb 15), OLAF said it was made aware of a number of reports of scammers offering to sell vaccines in a bid to defraud EU governments trying to speed up the pace of vaccination.
“For example, fraudsters 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," said Ville Itälä, the OLAF director-general.
“They may deliver batches of fake vaccines," Itälä added. "Or they falsely may purport to represent legitimate business and claim to be in the possession of or have access to vaccines. All of these claims have one thing in common: they are false."
The EU has been criticised for a slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in comparison with other parts of the world, lagging behind the pace of countries like Britain or Israel. The EU commission has signed six contracts for more than 2 billion doses of various coronavirus vaccines, but only three of them have been approved for use so far and the delivery of shots has been disturbed by production delays.
OLAF's message echoed a warning from the EU's police agency Europol, which in December highlighted the risk of organised crime scams linked to COVID-19 vaccines, including the possibility criminals will try to sell dangerous counterfeit vaccines or to hijack shipments of genuine shots.
The EU has bought vaccine doses collectively but member states can also decide to negotiate separate agreements outside the commission’s umbrella as long as they do not compete with the advance purchase agreement negotiated by the EU’s executive arm.
Hungary has criticised the pace of the EU's vaccine rollout and sought shots from countries outside the bloc’s common procurement programme. Hungarian health authorities last month approved the jab developed by China’s state-owned company Sinopharm and also authorised use of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
In addition to vaccine scams, OLAF is also monitoring illicit trade of face masks, test kits and other products linked to the COVID-19 outbreak. The anti-fraud body said they have not seized any fake vaccines so far but identified more than 1,000 suspected fraudsters and seized or detained “more than 14 million items" including dangerous hand sanitser, substandard face masks and fake test kits".