In Miami, priority access to COVID vaccines was dangled as a lure to big hospital donors.
In New York, hospital workers laboring from home cut in front of their frontline colleagues on the COVID-19 vaccine line.
In California, teachers at the wealthy Los Gatos Union School District were urged — by their superintendent — to masquerade as health care workers to get vaccines ahead of schedule.
Scarcity of vaccines amid a deadly global pandemic is fueling fears of a black market that could inflict great harm on public health and confidence, where potentially stolen, spoiled or fake vaccine is sold to those who can afford to pay while the real thing is in short supply in communities most heavily impacted by COVID, experts said.
“What we see is divergence — stolen, falsified and substandard product that undermines the health of the people who take it and the public health of the community, damages the brand of companies and torpedoes efforts of government to get the economy up and going,” said Nikos Passas, a professor in Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, in a discussion on the vaccine black market by the health news site STAT.
“We see vaccine tourism, fake medicines, fake products, with multiple victimization,” Passas said.
While there have been reports of wealthy Angelinos pressing concierge medical groups for early vaccine access, line-crashers at mass injection sites and non-medical family members snagging shots meant for health care workers, officials at the California Department of Public Health and local district attorneys’ offices said significant black market activity hasn’t hit the radar yet in the Golden State.
Fraud tip lines are at the ready, however, to take reports of any untoward activity that might surface.
“The things I’m concerned about are not necessarily unlawful, even though they’re unethical,” said Alison Bateman-House, an assistant professor of medical ethics at New York University. Like the doctor who puts his wife on the payroll as a temporary worker so she qualifies as a health care worker, or the person who takes his aging parents to a clinic in a poorer neighborhood, or across state lines, because vaccine is easier to get there.
“When you start having these fractures … you engender a lack of trust in the system,” she said. “At this point in time, we’re already dealing with the fastest vaccines ever created and brought to production in human history. There are people authorized to get them, but declining. You already have this very tenuous situation, and anything to further undermine it is going to cause more problems.”
The seeds for a black market were sown amid the general chaos of the pandemic, the government’s ham-handed management of the crisis, and long-standing inequities in health care access, the experts say.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office — an independent federal agency that examines how taxpayer dollars are spent and provides Congress with objective, nonpartisan information to help the government work more efficiently — would agree. It has been trying to prod officials toward a more cogent response to the pandemic since last summer.
“Congress’s watchdog,” as the GAO is known, pumped out four blistering critiques of the federal government’s efforts last year and made 31 recommendations on how to make things better. The government embraced only four of them.
On Thursday, Jan. 28, the GAO released yet another critique with 13 more suggestions. “GAO remains deeply troubled that agencies have not acted on recommendations to more fully address critical gaps in the medical supply chain,” it said.
While acknowledging there have been some steps forward, “GAO underscores the importance of developing a well-formulated plan to address critical gaps for the remainder of the pandemic, especially in light of the recent surge in cases,” it said, charitably adding, “implementation of GAO’s recommendation concerning the importance of clear and comprehensive vaccine distribution and communication plans remains a work in progress.”
Slow-walking fixes to program integrity — particularly in Small Business Administration and Department of Labor programs — “creates risk of considerable improper payments, including those related to fraud, and falls far short of transparency and accountability expectations.”
One year into the pandemic, the nation still needs a “supply chain strategy” for everything from testing, masks and other protective gear to vaccines, it said.
“As the new Congress and administration establish their policies and priorities for the federal government’s COVID-19 response, GAO urges swift action,” it said.
Much at stake
Knock-off designer bags are one thing. Knock-off vaccines are another altogether.
The integrity of vaccine product that ends up in marginalized communities is at the top of the worry list of Glenn Ellis, visiting scholar at the National Bioethics Center at Tuskegee University and bioethics fellow at Harvard Medical School.
“There are contaminated products being sold on the street, supposedly representing something else,” Ellis said. “What is the integrity of refrigeration and storage through this process?”
Passas warns of a darker phenomenon — “vaccine nationalism.”
Canada has reserved more doses of vaccine than it has people to vaccinate. The European Union is poised to block export of vaccine to other nations around the globe in the face of shortages.
“These are the kinds of things that cause security concerns, that constitute institutional racism,” he said. “Those worry me.”
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau put out a scam alert on Friday, Jan. 29, urging people to beware of scams offering early access to vaccines for a fee, phishing scams via email or text with phony vaccine information, and scammers peddling fake versions of vaccines.
“You can’t pay to get early access to the vaccine,” the CFPB said in its alert. “Medicare covers the cost of the COVID-19 vaccine. COVID-19 vaccines are also free to others throughout the country, although providers may charge an administration fee. Don’t share your personal or financial information if someone calls, texts, or emails you promising to get you the vaccine for a fee.”
Those who suspect fake, or misuse of, vaccine supply can report it to local police departments or district attorney’s offices. Consumer fraud units of county district attorney’s offices can be reached at the following numbers: Orange, 714-834-6553; Riverside, 951-955-0764; San Bernardino, 909-891-3330; and Los Angeles, 213-974-3512.