Interpol warned of an oncoming rise in vaccine-related crime Wednesday after police in South Africa and China seized thousands of fake coronavirus vaccine doses, asserting that the colossal busts were just the “tip of the iceberg.”
South African police arrested three Chinese citizens and a Zambian national at a warehouse outside Johannesburg while seizing roughly 2,400 fake coronavirus vaccine doses and an undisclosed number of counterfeit masks.
“Whilst we welcome this result, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] vaccine related crime,” Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock said Wednesday.
Interpol’s press release highlighted a bust from earlier this year in which Chinese authorities stopped a similar operation.
In early February, Chinese police, after a joint investigation with Interpol’s Illicit Goods and Global Health (IGGH) program, made 80 arrests in connection with a fake vaccine manufacturing scheme and seized over 3,000 fake doses across the eastern coastal provinces of Beijing, Jiangsu, and Shandong.
At the time of the bust, state media outlet Global Times suggested the operation was preparing to distribute the counterfeit vaccines abroad, though authorities were confident they shut down the ring before its operation could extend beyond China and that they had seized all existing fake doses. The operation had reportedly been extant since at least September 2020.
Despite highlighting both operations, Interpol did not draw any direct connections between the fake vaccine rings in South Africa and China. Neither South African nor Chinese authorities have linked the two.
The Interpol press release quoted a spokesperson for the Chinese Public Security Ministry who vowed the government would “further strengthen the constructive cooperation with Interpol and law enforcement agencies of other countries to effectively prevent such crimes.”
The statement also noted Interpol had received reports of comparable activities worldwide, especially schemes targeting nursing homes. Interpol emphasized that no legal vaccine is available for online purchase anywhere in the world and that all such advertisements, without exception, are fraudulent.
Despite growing vaccine fraud and other coronavirus-related crimes, Stock reassured the world that Interpol “continues to provide its full support to national authorities working to protect the health and safety of their citizens.”
Even without the rise in global vaccine crimes, Chinese citizens in particular have good reason to be wary of even state-approved inoculations.
Chinese authorities in 2018 discovered Changsheng Biotechnology, a Chinese vaccine manufacturer, had produced roughly 500,000 defective vaccines intended for children, almost all of which went to Shandong province, a major center of the vaccine ring authorities disbanded in February. Another firm was later discovered to have distributed almost the same amount of bad doses, meaning nearly 1 million defective doses may have reached Chinese children in 2018.
An investigation eventually led to the arrest of 15 Changsheng executives, including Chairwoman Gao Junfang, the “Vaccine Queen,” then a contender for China’s richest woman.