The Covid-19 crisis has caused Europe unimaginable losses on human lives, cut or even halted the income of millions and paralysed the economy. However, this worldwide crisis seems to be considered rather an opportunity by some. The bigger the despair of medical staff and governments to prevent people from dying and losing jobs, the more fraud, scams and counterfeit promising to ease this fight has appeared in the European Union. Luckily, the European Union has created two dedicated agencies whose task is to investigate and prevent fraud. Thanks to the European Antifraud Office - OLAF - and the Europol, the harm of people by dangerous sanitizers or the loss of taxpayers’ money on fraudulent offers of vaccines could have been prevented. For the future, coordinated approval of vaccines and better and timely exchange of information about suspicious vaccine offers or counterfeit products will remain key for not letting anymore of these fraudsters succeed.
If there is someone who is highly flexible in adjusting to external conditions, it is criminals. Anything high on demand will be eventually affected by fraud. And this has not been any different during the Covid19 times.
In the first wave of the pandemic, there was no higher urgency than to provide protective material to both health care workers and the general public. In the beginning of last year, we witnessed for the first time an inflow of counterfeit face masks pretending to have a necessary safety certification or hand sanitizers filled with dangerous methanol. And the numbers have grown high. The OLAF has identified more than 1,000 of these fraudulent traders offerings tens of millions of products for three times the average market price.
Yet, it was not until the breakthrough in the Covid19 vaccine development when new horizons for scammers opened. Despite of the Europol warning the Member States already at the end of last year, soon we heard it from the Prime Minister of the country I arrive from: A Dubai intermediary of AstraZeneca offered vaccines to Czechia in case the government pays 50 percent in advance. Shortly after, emails with similar suspicious offers have been made to other governments. Hundreds of millions of non-existent doses were to generate billions in profit to self-named intermediaries with seats outside of the EU. Rich EU market clearly being their prime target. The extent of the fake offers have been so large that it made the OLAF for the first time ever speak publically about their ongoing work. In the beginning of the year, the Agency raised the issue to the attention of the governments in order to prevent them from accepting these false offers.
Thanks to the accurate and speedy work of the EU, we have not heard from any corner of the Union that a government would fall into these traps and spend already scarce public finances on promises of non-existent vaccines deliveries. But there are no doubts that there are going to be more of these and other, more sophisticated, offers of the growing portfolio of vaccines approved in the European Union. What, however, presents even a higher risk, are unapproved vaccines on the European market. If tracking fraud with vaccines, about which the standards of quality and addresses of plants producing them are known, already represents a challenge, even more urgent problem emerges with those vaccines, about which a little has been made public. The production of Sputnik V as well as Chinese vaccines has been everything but transparent. While neither the Russian nor the Chinese are willing to open doors to their production factories or to provide medicine and drug approving agencies with full documentation about the jabs they offer, fraudsters can celebrate. In an information limbo, a fake offer will have the same value as an official one. The incentives to follow the EU regulatory process for approving new vaccines should be therefore strong, if not only for this reason.
The moment, we should, nevertheless, fear of the most, is when fake vaccines reach Europe. While false promises impact “only” state financial resources, real deliveries of fake vaccines might impact people’s health and trust. That is why only the EU common approach is the right way how to address the pandemic without risking even more lost lives. If Member States agree to the purchases and the use of vaccines the European Medicines Agency has approved based on details where, how and by who these are produced, it will be immediately clear that an offer of deliveries from an unknown plant cannot be what it pretends to be - a registered vaccine on the EU market. On the contrary, the more countries slip to individual purchases of vaccines from Russia and China, the more likely they will fall into traps of officially looking, yet fraudulent, offers of vaccines, which do not show any results in terms of Covid19 protection. And that would be still the best possible scenario of these counterfeits on people’s health.
The Covid19 pandemic has revealed many weaknesses in the European Union solidarity and pointed to limits the EU institutions face when it comes to public health protection. However, despite of these challenges, the EU’s response to the pandemic must not be seen as a failure. Thanks to well-functioning and highly respected EU agencies, Europeans can rest assured that vaccines they receive are safe and efficient and that harmful unauthorized products are prevented from entering the EU market. In my eyes, the EU is to be praised for the assurances it has to offer. For the future, I only wish for the Member States to continue following the path of European cooperation, using verified vaccines from official suppliers and sharing all available information about fraud they detect. Despite of the human and economic crisis Europe faces, it is not time for nationalization of the safety and health of people.
Written by Tomáš Zdechovský MEP | EPP CONT Coordinator
Tomáš Zdechovský is Member of the European Parliament, for the Group of the European People's Party. He holds an important position as a Coordinator of the Budgetary Control Committee and Vice-chair of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs in the European Parliament. He worked as a media consultant at several Czech ministries and also at the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he volunteered at several facilities to provide health and social care.