The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned against criminal groups trying to exploit disruption in the vaccine supply chain by selling unregulated, counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines that could potentially "cause serious harm."
While countries and organizations such as COVAX, the global initiative aimed at equitable access to coronavirus jabs, struggle to reach their vaccination goals because of insufficient supplies, frustration shouldn't lead governments and members of the public to trust buying uncertified vaccines off the internet, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during the opening remarks of a media speech on Friday.
The WHO reports that 117 countries across the world have already started vaccinating their populations, with COVAX distributing 32 million vaccine doses to 61 of these countries in just one month.
But vaccine shortages and supply disruptions have left COVAX unable to deliver millions of vaccine doses that should have started vaccination programs in 20 countries "who need them desperately."
This global unmet demand could be exploited by criminal groups wanting to feed off people's desperation for vaccine doses, the WHO has warned.
"A number of ministries of health, national regulatory authorities and public procurement organizations have received suspicious offers to supply COVID-19 vaccines," said Adhanom Ghebreyesus during his opening speech.
"We are also aware of vaccines being diverted and reintroduced into the supply chain, with no guarantee that the cold chain has been maintained."
A falsified COVID-19 vaccine labeled "BNT162b2" was found to be circulating among patients outside authorized vaccination programs in Mexico in February. While the counterfeit vials stated they had been manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, the company denied manufacturing the products, which also showed the wrong batch number and expiration date.
"Some falsified products are also being sold as vaccines on the internet, especially on the dark web and we are aware of other reports of corruption and reuse of empty vaccine vials," said Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The WHO has called for authorities to ensure empty vaccine vials are destroyed or disposed of in a way that can prevent them from being reused by criminal groups and then being resold on the illegal market.
The recommendation to individuals is to stick to government-run vaccination programs and report any suspicious sales of vaccines to national authorities.
The sale and spread of falsified and potentially harmful products could also undermine the public's perception of the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines. "It's important to remember that any harm caused by a falsified product does not reflect a safety failure of the genuine vaccine," said Adhanom Ghebreyesus.