South African police have seized hundreds of fake COVID-19 vaccines and arrested four suspects following a global Interpol operation after the body warned that vaccines would be a prime target for global criminal networks.

According to a statement released by Interpol on Wednesday, the SAPS arrested three Chinese nationals and a Zambian national after discovering the fake Covid-19 vaccines in a warehouse in Germiston, Gauteng.

The authorities seized approximately 400 ampoules – equivalent to around 2,400 doses – containing the fake vaccine. A large quantity of fake 3M masks was also recovered. 

Counterfeit Covid-19 vaccine also found in China

Interpol said police in China had successfully identified a network selling counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines, raided the manufacturing premises, resulting in the arrest of some 80 suspects, and seized more than 3000 fake vaccines. The investigation was supported and facilitated by Interpol’s Illicit Goods and Global Health (IGGH) Programme.

The arrests came just weeks after Interpol issued an Orange Notice warning law enforcement to prepare for organised crime networks targeting COVID-19 vaccines, both physically and online.  The alert had also included details and images of genuine vaccines and authorised shipping methods provided by pharmaceutical companies to assist professionals with the identification of fake vials.Interpol said the latest arrests underlined Interpol’s role of ensuring law enforcement bodies across its 194 member countries are updated on crime trends and can swiftly and securely exchange information.

“Whilst we welcome this result, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine related crime,” said Interpol secretary general Jürgen Stock said.

“Following our warning that criminals would target the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, both on and offline, Interpol continues to provide its full support to national authorities working to protect the health and safety of their citizens,” he said.

SAPS spokesperson Vish Naidoo said the government had adopted an integrated multi-disciplinary law enforcement approach. 

“This, together with our association with counterparts from all Interpol member countries, is proving to be very effective as we have seen in the arrests for foreign nationals attempting to peddle fake vaccines to unsuspecting people within South Africa,” Naidoo said.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Public Security said: “The Chinese government attaches great importance to vaccine security. Chinese police are conducting a targeted campaign to prevent and crack down on crimes related to vaccines, proactively investigating and combating crimes related to vaccines in accordance with law,” he said.

“We will further strengthen the constructive cooperation with Interpol and law enforcement agencies of other countries to effectively prevent such crimes.”

Interpol added that investigations were continuing as it had receiving additional reports of fake vaccine distribution and scam attempts targeting health bodies, such as nursing homes.

Interpol waned the public that no approved vaccines are currently available for sale online.  Any vaccine being advertised on websites or the dark web, are not legitimate, have not been tested and may be dangerous.  

Anyone who buys these drugs is putting themselves at risk and giving their money to organised criminals, Interpol warned.

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Presh JM Reporter

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