COVID-19 vaccines are hot property and even before clinical trials end they are for sale on the dark web.
COVID-19 vaccines are already being sold on the black market for up to $24,000 and experts say Australian players are involved in the illegal activity.
Australian National University academic Professor Rob Broadhurst uncovered 12 markets on the dark web selling COVID-19 related products including 22 vaccines and the blood of patients who had recovered from the virus.
“We thought there were one or two that we recognise which claim to be Australian,” the criminologist said yesterday.
Details about the origin or composition of the vaccines were sparse but they may have been diverted from animal or human trials, or even sourced from recovered COVID-19 patients, he said.
The average price of the vaccines, many from China, was $5393 but the most costly was the ‘COVID-19 Antidote for sale’ at $24,598 on Dream Alt, shipped worldwide from the United States, he said.
More recently he said he found sites claiming to sell China’s experimental Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines for $350 for two doses.
The Turing Institute in the UK had also found 20 dark web sites offering COVID-19 products including vaccines and medicines in a paper awaiting publication Professor Broadhurst said.
And in August Chinese authorities issued warnings after someone on Chinese social media channel WeChat advertised Chinese COVID-19 trial vaccines made by Sinovac and Sinopharm for $350.
The sites touted the products in a range of ways, with some promising overnight delivery or worldwide shipping with “very understandable prizes” (sic).
One product was advertised as a “COVID-19 cure vaccine” with the tagline “Keep quiet on this”, and another was promoted as a “COVID-19 antidote here from China”.
Professor Broadhurst found a total of 645 COVID-19-related products for sale on the dark web, one third of which were unique listings, once repeat listings on different sites were accounted for.
Dark website Agartha listed 444 COVID-19 related products while DarkBay offered 118 COVID-19 related listings.
“We were quite concerned because they have had, based on our work and others, a pretty good track record of delivering particular kinds of pharmaceuticals, in the black market so we thought it was plausible,” Professor Broadhurst said of his research.
“The biosecurity hazardous products are the most dangerous because some are marketed as if they have been leaked from real trials. But, they could be fake and we don’t know what they are made from,” he said.
Personal protective equipment such as masks, sanitisers, gowns and gloves accounted for about half of all the unique listings.
Medicines were the next most common products, accounting for a third of the unique listings (74) and included the drugs hydroxychloroquine, antibiotic azithromycin and the antiviral medicine favipiravir.
Vaccines and antidotes made up about six per cent of all listings, he said.
COVID-19 vaccines have become among the world’s most precious commodities as the pandemic rages and strict security measures are being put in place to safeguard them.
The nation’s medicines watchdog the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and Australian Border Force told News Corp they “have tough powers in place to prevent and detect the illegal import and supply of vaccines”.
Civil penalties for buying and selling the products range from a maximum of $1,110,000 for an individual to $11,100,000 for a corporation.
Criminal penalties can range up to five years in jail or fines of $888,000 for each breach, the TGA said.