Fake and unauthorized COVID-19 vaccine camps reported across India has prompted authorities to regulate vaccination centers to stop fraudulent practices.
The unearthing of bogus vaccination camps in the metropolitan cities of Mumbai and Kolkata with thousands falling prey to the scam just as the vaccine drive picks up pace in the country has come as a rude shock to authorities.
In the first case, Debanjan Deb, a 28-year-old man, posed as a civil servant and held several camps in the eastern city of Kolkata where around 2000 people were suspected to have been inoculated. A MP, Mimi Chakraborty, was among thousands of unsuspecting individuals who fell victim.
Preying on the vulnerable
The police found all the vaccine doses were fake and the vials with ‘Covishied’ and ‘Covaxin’ labels – both used in the vaccine rollout - were actually of Amikacin injections, an antibiotic.
Six persons have so far been arrested including Deb, the mastermind behind the elaborate scam, who has been charged with attempt to murder.
In Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, at least 2,053 residents were given fake Covid-19 vaccines at nine unauthorized immunization camps organized by an event management company.
Police arrested 14 people, including two doctors at a private hospital, who targeted residents of an upscale housing complex and administered some even with a saline solution.
Many who got their shots at these sites became suspicious after their vaccination did not show up on the government's online portal that tracks vaccinations and when the hospitals the workers told them they belonged to didn't match the ones of the vaccine cards they were given.
The West Bengal government has suspended all Covid-19 vaccinated centers apart from those in private and government hospitals for the time being. The state health department will be holding a high-level meeting and then decide the guidelines for vaccination camps.
Sluggish pace of vaccinations
Vaccine experts and virologists believe the slow rollout of vaccines, the price differential between private and government hospitals and the inordinately long time to book an appointment on the government run app have proved fertile ground for scamsters to step in to make a quick buck.
“If healthcare givers are responsible, then exemplary punishment has to be given out to act as a deterrent,” Shally Awasthi, a pediatric pulmonologist told RFI.
According to a strategy paper submitted to the government, given the size of the country’s population and the need for speed, India would need 130,000-140,000 vaccination centers, over 100,000 healthcare professionals and 200,000 support staff to handle inoculation and logistics if it has to inoculate priority groups, numbering over 300 million by August and for the entire adult population - about 800 million - by the end of 2021.
Given the mammoth task at hand, it is no surprise that many Indians are falling prey to vaccine fraud.
Some also believe that loopholes in the vaccine rollout have allowed syndicates and fraudsters to infiltrate the supply chain especially at the distribution level.
In May, the Delhi Police cyber cell arrested two persons for allegedly creating a fake COVID vaccination registration website to target people desperately searching for an empty slot. They duped many people to the tune of 4 million Indian rupees (45,454 Euros).
The duo created a website that was similar to the government’s CoWin portal and charged 50 to 70 Euros from each user and also provided them with fake registration receipts.
“As we take precautions against COVID, so we must take against fraud. There have been several fake vaccination sites found duping people who shut shop once the police got wind of their operations,” a senior police officer told RFI.
According to global computer security software company, McAfee, India and Chile were the top two countries targeted by fake apps which lure people with promises of vaccinations, with the total
Moving forward, doctors feel the most effective action to counter such frauds will have to be a collaborative one which includes supply chain partners, rival firms, consumers and authorities working together to detect counterfeits and share intelligence.
The fake vaccination camps are a blow as India is also battling the scourge of spurious and low-quality drugs for years.