Covid-19 vaccines hit the black market
22 Feb 2021|

As the global rollout of vaccines against Covid-19 gathers pace, there are already reports of a vibrant black market for the various vaccine candidates. A black market usually springs up fairly quickly when there’s a shortage of an item and people are prepared to pay substantial sums to obtain it. With Covid-19, there’s the added incentive for buyers of avoiding death or serious illness.

There are clearly the ingredients for a black market to thrive—the vaccines are being produced in large quantities, some supply chains are not secure, and some wealthy people will pay to jump the queue or obtain a preferred vaccine. This in turn will lead to corruption of those distributing and administering vaccines and those prepared to trade their priority place in the vaccination queue for money. The problem will be particularly acute in less developed countries.

The most profitable markets for black marketeers will be places where many people have died, vaccines are unavailable, and there is substantial corrupt wealth. Ukraine, for example, has registered more than 1.3 million Covid-19 infections and nearly 26,000 deaths in a population of 40 million. The Ukrainian government was slow to buy vaccines, hoping to get them free from the European Union, and has yet to launch its vaccination campaign. Ukraine is waiting for the delivery of 20 million vaccine doses from the Serum Institute of India and the global COVAX scheme, as well as vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Novavax.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian police are investigating reports that some wealthy and influential Ukrainians were inoculated after paying up to $4,700 per dose, probably of the Pfizer vaccine. Reports suggest that the vaccine could have been brought in from Israel and that several top Ukrainian officials and business figures have been unofficially vaccinated.

If the vaccine has come from Israel, Israeli organised crime groups could be involved.

At least seven different Covid-19 vaccines are now being used around the world. The most desirable are the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration has approved emergency use of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and UK regulators have approved all three. The WHO has approved the use of vaccines by Pfizer, AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India (Covishield), but it has not yet finalised approval of the Moderna vaccine.

In the US, there’s ongoing concern that people may try to manipulate the vaccination system at the state level in various ways—for example, by claiming essential-worker status, exaggerating their health risks, and using political influence or wealth to gain a vaccination advantage. There’s also a concern about vaccine theft.

The black-market price of the vaccine will be based not only on effectiveness and demand but also on ease of transportation and storage.

The most valuable are the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which have shown 94% and 92% effectiveness, respectively, followed by the AstraZeneca vaccine with around 80% effectiveness. All supposedly require two doses, but the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine is 85% effective, according to a study in The Lancet medical journal, so a second dose may not be essential.

The initial cost of the vaccine is probably not a factor for black marketeers given the size of the potential profit margin. The AstraZeneca vaccine reportedly costs about $4.50 per dose, compared to Pfizer at $25 per dose and Moderna at around $47. (AstraZeneca says it’s not making a profit on the vaccine, while Pfizer and Moderna are discounting their prices for large orders.)

Logistically, the AstraZeneca vaccine would be easier for black marketeers to handle since it can be stored and transported at 4°C, while the Pfizer vaccine must be transported at –70°C. The Moderna vaccine may be stored between 2°C and 8°C for up to 30 days.

A shortage of any pharmaceutical soon leads to the production of fake items that can be passed off as the real thing. On the dark web, prices for Covid-19 vaccines seem to vary from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. Many of the products are likely to be fakes.

In the US, Covid-19 scams have been widespread since the start of the pandemic, including more recently for access to vaccines. The FBI has warned of hackers, criminals and scam artists attempting to disrupt the vaccine supply chain or targeting vulnerable citizens.

In Australia, the Therapeutics Goods Administration is working closely with the Australian Border Force to prevent and detect the illegal importation and supply of vaccines. The TGA warns that it will take action against suspected illegal activity, noting: ‘Breaking the laws related to therapeutic goods in Australia can result in substantial penalties, fines or imprisonment.’