coronavirus had spread to Europe and North America. Countries on these continents also quickly placed lockdowns.
In the same month, Nigeria recorded its index case of the coronavirus – an Italian man who arrived in Lagos from Milan on a business trip.
On March 11, the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, and encouraged strict adherence to protocols such as wearing of face masks, handwashing with soap, use of hand sensitisers, and social distancing.
Businesses were closed, movements restricted, public facilities also shut down. Life turned abnormal following an unprecedented pandemic.
To many in the scientific and medical communities, it quickly became apparent that a post-COVID-19 world would certainly involve some sort of immunisation programme.
Thankfully, in what has been described as an unequalled feat, scientists were able to develop a vaccine within a year of the pandemic’s existence.
By December 2020, some pharmaceutical companies had developed and got the approval of their COVID-19 vaccines by health authorities.
For instance, on December 11, 2020, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States granted an emergency use authorisation for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
On December 18, 2020, the FDA also allowed an emergency use authorisation for the Moderna vaccine. The company began shipping out the product three days later.
In mid-February, the World Health Organisation approved an emergency use authorisation for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to be distributed worldwide.
A few weeks later, Johnson & Johnson received an emergency use authorisation from the FDA for its single-dose vaccine.
As of February 18, at least seven different vaccines across three platforms have been rolled out in countries, according to data by the WHO.
On March 2, Nigeria received over 3.9 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which was manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, from COVAX, a global alliance to provide free vaccinations. The country is expected to receive an additional 42 million doses of approved vaccines through the African Union’s African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team.
Unfortunately, before the emergence and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines in countries, the pandemic had wreaked havoc on global economies and families.
On February 21, WHO stated that 110.7 million had been infected with the virus while over 2.4 million people had died. As of April 15, over 139 million cases were recorded, with nearly three million deaths.
However, as global health bodies advised people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, there is a problem: the shortage of the number of doses being manufactured and an increasing number of COVID-19 cases.
In fact, Indian authorities have halted the export of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines, a situation that is generating concerns for low- and middle-income countries like Nigeria.
Although more vaccines are expected to be produced, there are also concerns that powerful countries might be hoarding the vaccines to cater to their citizens.
Amid all these challenges, the World Health Organisation in March issued a warning about counterfeit and stolen COVID-19 vaccines being sold on the dark web.
The WHO noted that spiking demand for the COVID-19 vaccine had met inconsistent availability, with scams emerging as a seemingly inevitable result.
The WHO said several ministries of health and regulatory agencies around the world had received suspicious offers to supply vaccines, along with reports of “criminal groups” reusing empty vaccine vials.
“We urge the secure disposal or destruction of used and empty vaccine vials to prevent them from being reused by criminal groups,” said the WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The WHO also alerted the public to a falsified vaccine detected in Mexico in February, which had been administered to patients outside of authorised vaccination programmes.
“Falsified COVID-19 vaccines pose a serious risk to global public health and place an additional burden on vulnerable populations and health systems. It is important to identify and remove these from circulation,” the WHO said.
According to a report by the British Broadcasting Corporation, doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca, Sputnik, Sinipharm and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are being offered for prices between $500 and $750 on the dark web.
A cybersecurity company, Check Point, also said it had seen a tripling in vaccine advertisements since January, with some sellers offering next-day delivery.
In March, the International Criminal Police Organisation, commonly known as Interpol, said it seized thousands of doses of counterfeit COVID-19 vaccine and made dozens of arrests.
In China, Interpol made 80 arrests at a factory allegedly making fake vaccines, where at least 3,000 doses were found.
A month earlier, Chinese authorities arrested the leader of a multimillion-dollar scam that passed off the saline solution and mineral water as COVID-19 vaccines.
The suspect, identified only as Kong, had researched the packaging designs of real vaccines before making more than 58,000 of his own doses. He was among 70 people arrested for similar crimes, the BBC reported.
According to a court ruling, Kong and his team made a profit of $2.78m (N1.1bn) by putting saline solution or mineral water in syringes and hawking them as COVID-19 vaccines.
A batch of the fake vaccines was said to have been smuggled overseas but it was not known at the time where they had been sent to.
In January, the Mexican police arrested six people for allegedly trafficking fake COVID-19 vaccines in the northern border state of Nuevo León.
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Lamentably, some of the fake vaccines seemed to have found their way to Africa as Interpol also said three Chinese nationals and a Zambian were arrested at a warehouse in Gauteng, South Africa, where ampoules containing 2,400 doses were discovered.
Interpol said it was also getting reports of other fake vaccine rings.
Announcing the dismantling of the suspected fake vaccine network, Interpol stressed that no approved vaccines were currently available for sale online.
“Any vaccine being advertised on websites or the dark web, will not be legitimate, will not have been tested and may be dangerous,” it said.
Interpol Secretary-General, Jürgen Stock, said that while the police operations in China and South Africa were commendable, they were “only the tip of the iceberg” on issues related to COVID-19 vaccine-related crime.
The organisation in December 2020 issued a global alert warning police in its 194 member countries, including Nigeria, to prepare for organised crime networks targeting COVID-19 vaccines.
Public health physician and member of the Vaccine Safety & Confidence Building Working Group, Prof Tanimola Akande, advised Nigerians to go to only designated government centres to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Prof Tanimola Akande
Prof Tanimola Akande
He said this was the best strategy to avoid taking fake COVID-19 vaccines.
He said, “The deployment of vaccines by the National Primary Health Care Development Agency is such that people who follow protocol will not fall into the hands of those selling fake COVID-19 vaccines.
“All the vaccines given to the NPHCDA were through COVAX. The NPHCDA sent those vaccines to states, and the states have announced centres where those vaccines can be taken. All of the centres are government facilities. There are also measures put in place to know the batches of vaccines used in a day. This is to help trace the source of the vaccine should anyone report side effects after taking the vaccine.
“So if people take the vaccine from the designated government facilities, the tendency of taking fake vaccines is zero. No one should be desperate or cajoled into going outside government facilities to take the vaccine.”
However, Akande said it was unfortunate that “we have an environment for people to perpetrate evil by selling fake vaccines because they want to make money.”
“I think it’s people who are desperate and poorly informed that can fall into such hands. We may also have health workers who may claim they have the vaccines and be selling to unwary people,” he said.
The don stated that the risk of people patronising fake COVID-19 vaccines might be higher due to the shortage of vaccine supply.
“What we have available now is for those who will take the second dose. We hope we get more supplies so that people will not be desperate and fall into the hands of those who may want to sell fake vaccines,” he added.
In March, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control warned Nigerians against using fake COVID-19 vaccines because it could cause sicknesses similar to the illness caused by the coronavirus and that the results might be fatal.
“There are reports of fake vaccines in Nigeria. NAFDAC is pleading with the public to beware. No COVID-19 vaccines have been approved by NAFDAC. Fake vaccines can cause COVID-like illnesses or other serious diseases that could kill,” the agency said in a statement.
Speaking with our correspondent, a Professor of Virology at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, David Olaleye, said the circulation of fake vaccines in the country was a possibility because anytime there was a pressure on a commodity – that is, when the demand is higher than supply – it could open the door for sharp practices by people wanting to take advantage of systems.
“But people must be careful. The way to avoid this is to get vaccinated at government-designated facilities. As of today, the NPHCDA is the one managing the vaccination programme in the country. So vaccines are not being administered at private facilities.
“So no one should go to a private facility to get vaccinated – this is the best way to not fall into the hands of fake vaccine distributors. No one should be desperate,” Olaleye said.
The don said the two main effects of getting fake COVID-19 vaccines were a false sense of protection against the coronavirus, and adverse reactions on the victim’s health.
Also, the spokesperson for the Association of Public Health Physicians of Nigeria, Dr Blossom Maduafokwa, said the best way to avoid getting a fake COVID-19 vaccine was to go to the right place and go through the right channel.
Maduafokwa said the association had observed that some people were going to the designated vaccination centres but looking for back channels to access the vaccine.
She said, “When people do this, they can easily play into the wrong hands. And when this happens, there are consequences for the individual and the community.
“An individual who gets a fake vaccine won’t get protected against COVID-19. Also, they will be made to part with money, whereas the genuine ones distributed by the government are free. The consequence for the community as a whole is that the pandemic will not end soon.”
Interpol also warned about the dangers of taking fake COVID-19 vaccines in a statement, saying fake vaccines could be counterfeit, contaminated or mislabelled.
“Fake medicines can be dangerous for a number of reasons. Perhaps they have been falsified or deliberately mislabelled. Illicit medicines often contain the wrong amount of active ingredients (too little, too much, or none at all). Some fake medicines have been found to contain mercury, arsenic, rat poison or cement,” the organisation said.
“In other cases, the medicines may be genuine but have been stolen and then badly stored or may have expired. This means they could be ineffective or contaminated,” Interpol added.
The organisation said counterfeit medicines were often packaged to a high standard with fake pills that looked identical like genuine ones, stating that sometimes, a laboratory test was the only way to identify the difference.
To avert the risk of taking fake COVID-19 vaccines, experts advised Nigerians to check for the list of the various designated government facilities published by state governments.
“Anyone who has questions should not hesitate to approach the Ministry of Health in their location,” Olaleye added.
Akande also said people without access to the internet could listen to the radio or watch the television to know where to get vaccinated.