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Beware of COVID-19 Vaccine Scams       11/30 06:15


   WASHINGTON (AP) -- The coronavirus vaccine inching toward approval in the 
U.S. is desperately anticipated by weary Americans longing for a path back to 
normal life. But criminals are waiting, too, ready to use that desperation to 
their advantage, federal investigators say.

   Homeland Security investigators are working with Pfizer, Moderna and dozens 
of other drug companies racing to complete and distribute the vaccine and 
treatments for the virus. The goal: to prepare for the scams that are coming, 
especially after the mess of criminal activity this year with phony personal 
protective equipment, false cures and extortion schemes.

   "We're all very excited about the potential vaccine and treatments," said 
Steve Francis, assistant director for global trade investigations with Homeland 
Security Investigations. "But I also caution against these criminal 
organizations and individuals that will try to exploit the American public."

   No vaccine has yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 
The FDA has approved the first treatment for COVID-19, the antiviral drug 
remdesivir. With vaccines and treatments both, it has warned about the 
potential for fraud.

   "The FDA is particularly concerned that these deceptive and misleading 
products might cause Americans to delay or stop appropriate medical treatment, 
leading to serious and life-threatening harm," the agency said in a recent 

   The drug companies are to have safeguards and brand-protection features in 
place to help avoid fraud, but that may not be available until the second 
generation of vaccine because everything is operated on such an emergency 
basis, said Karen Gardner, chief marketing officer at SIPCA North America, a 
company that works as a bridge between the government, businesses and 
consumers. She said that makes it more important to educate health care 
providers on what the real thing looks like.

   "When you have anything in high demand and limited supply, there is going to 
be fraud," she said. Desperation will drive people around normal channels.

   Meanwhile, investigators are learning about how the vaccine will be packaged 
and getting the message out to field agents, creating a mass database of 
information from more than 200 companies, so they can be prepared to spot fakes 
and crack down on dangerous fraud. They are monitoring tens of thousands of 
false websites and looking for evidence of fake cures sold online.

   Earlier this year as cases exploded, hospitals and governments grew short on 
masks, gloves and other protective gear. Scams grew, too. Tricksters preyed on 
unwitting citizens to hand over money for goods they'd never receive.

   Homeland Security Investigations started using its 7,000 agents in tandem 
with border, FDA and FBI officials to investigate scams, seize phony products 
and arrest hundreds of people. The effort is headquartered at the National 
Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, a government watchdog aimed 
at enforcement of its international trade laws and combating intellectual 
property theft.

   The agency has already analyzed more than 70,900 websites suspected as being 
involved in some type of COVID-19 fraud. Millions of fake or unapproved 
personal protective equipment products and antiviral pharmaceuticals were 
seized. Homeland Security Investigations made more than 1,600 seizures of 
products worth more than $27 million and made more than 185 arrests.

   Home test kits, for example, were only recently made available to the public 
in the past few weeks. But investigators seized tens of thousands of fake kits 
in the months before. On the dark web, scammers were selling domain names like 
"coronaprevention.org," attractive to counterfeiters. In the U.S. alone, more 
than 1,000 fake websites a day have been removed during the pandemic.

   A vaccine can't come fast enough, as virus cases have topped 13 million in 
the U.S. and many cities have started restricting movement again as the country 
heads into winter. The pandemic has killed more than 1.4 million people 
worldwide, more than 266,000 of them in the U.S., according to figures compiled 
by Johns Hopkins University. But Francis and other investigators are worried 
that desperation will make Americans more susceptible.

   If the FDA allows emergency use of a vaccine, there will be limited, 
rationed supplies before the end of the year.

   Gen. Gus Perna, in charge of the government's efforts to distribute the 
vaccine, said on CBS' "60 Minutes" the government was prepared to distribute 
the vaccine within 24 hours of approval. There's a stockpile of the prospective 
vaccine itself plus kits of needles, syringes and alcohol swabs needed to give 
the dose. The secret stash is watched by armed guards.

   "We have taken extraordinary precaution in this area," he said. "It's such a 
commodity to us, we're taking the full steps to make sure that the vaccine's 

   Who is first in line has yet to be decided. But Health and Human Services 
Secretary Alex Azar said the hope is that enough doses are available by the end 
of January to vaccinate adults over age 65, who are at the highest risk from 
the coronavirus, and health care workers. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. 
government's top infectious-diseases expert, said it may take until spring or 
summer before anyone who is not high risk and wants a shot can get one.

   States already are gearing up for what is expected to be the biggest 
vaccination campaign in U.S. history. First the shots have to arrive where 
they're needed, and Pfizer's must be kept at ultra-cold temperatures --- around 
minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 70 degrees Celsius. Moderna's vaccine 
also starts off frozen, but the company said it can be thawed and kept in a 
regular refrigerator for 30 days, easing that concern.

   Governments in other countries and the World Health Organization, which aims 
to buy doses for poor nations, will have to decide separately if and when 
vaccines should be rolled out broadly.

   Meanwhile, Homeland Security investigators and others are trying to send the 
message now to the public before the vaccines are approved and begin 
distribution. They say people should only get a vaccine from an approved 
medical provider. They shouldn't respond to calls seeking personal information. 
And they shouldn't click on social media posts purporting to sell cures.

   "If it sounds too good to be true, it is," Francis said.

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