Fake coronavirus vaccines and repurposed drugs are being sold on the dark web

Australian researchers have found a smorgasbord of COVID-19-related medicines such as the much hyped anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, for sale on the dark web.

New research from ANU found personal protective equipment, repurposed medicine and coronavirus 'vaccines' on the dark web.

New research from ANU found personal protective equipment, repurposed medicine and coronavirus 'vaccines' on the dark web. Source: SBS News

The shadowy "dark web" online network is being used to peddle a range of fake vaccines and repurposed drugs that cyber criminals claim can treat coronavirus. 

Researchers at the Australian National University have published a new study revealing how cyber criminals are taking advantage of the pandemic to sell a range of purported vaccines as well as drugs marketed as cures for the virus.

Report author Roderic Broadhurst said the dark web - a hidden network of websites only accessible through special routing software - gave a revealing glimpse into criminal trends. 

“Dark net markets give us a useful window into what sort of trends in criminal entrepreneurial enterprise are happening and ... to get ahead of the game so to speak," he said.

"These kinds of markets are prone to scams and fakes and what we have seen is COVID-19-related products are unlikely to be exempt." 

The research was captured over one day in April, analysing 645 listings across 20 dark net markets.

It uncovered 12 of those markets had posted coronavirus-related products.

Almost half of those listings were personal protective gear such as surgical masks and a third of the items available were anti-viral or repurposed medications that have been publicly touted as being possible cures for the virus.

Six per cent of the listings sold fraudulent or untested vaccines, with the most expensive vaccine listed at $24,598 and the average cost at $575. 

The majority of the sellers were shipping from the United States or Europe. 

"Our concern is that the next frontier could be blood plasma from recovered patients turning up on the dark web. We didn't find such listings but there is already demand for it in forums," Professor Broadhurst said.  

Convalescent plasma therapy, which involves taking blood from a patient who has made a full recovery from the coronavirus, is one of several emerging but unproven therapies. 

Researchers have found drugs marketed as COVID-19 vaccines or cures on the dark web as well as PPE.
Source: Supplied

Major health risks 

Dr Harry Nespolon, the president of the Royal Australian College of GPs, strongly urged people not to purchase therapies or vaccines on the dark web. 

"The only thing that we know that works against COVID-19 at the moment is social distancing and anti-viral activity such as coughing into your elbow, regularly watching your hands," he said. 

"When it comes to medications, we know a lot of the medications sourced through unofficial channels are fake. And as of today, they all don't work.

"When it comes to vaccines, we know that there are no vaccines available for COVID-19 and even if there was, vaccines need to be kept refrigerated, so having them delivered by posts, even if there was one, would mean that it probably was ineffective." 

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee - the peak body that manages health emergencies - has previously stated that experimental use of medications such as anti-malarial drugs for COVID-19 treatment was not recommended, and should only be prescribed as part of a clinical trial. 

Australian mining magnate Clive Palmer this week advertised that he had bought 33 million doses of the anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine.

The report's authors cautioned that fake vaccines could worsen the spread of the virus because users could behave as if they were immune but nevertheless become infected. 

Published 30 April 2020 at 5:48am
By Lin Evlin