Authorities have arrested 70 people in China for producing and distributing fake coronavirus vaccines in a crackdown involving more than 20 cases around the country.
Some of the vaccines were smuggled overseas.
Xinhua News Agency said the suspects produced and sold fake vaccines and conducted mass inoculation without authorization in the early phase of the country’s COVID-19 vaccine marketing programs late last year.
One suspect made a profit of 18 million yuan ($3.6 million) by bottling saline solution or mineral water and selling it as a coronavirus vaccine, Xinhua said citing a court ruling.
It said the suspect, named Kong, sold 2000 fake vaccines in November for 1.04 million yuan ($207,000) to another suspect who resold them at a higher price.
Of the 2000 fake vaccines, 600 were freighted to Hong Kong in November before being sent overseas. It did not say which country they were sent to.
Another 1400 fake vaccines were stored in Hong Kong and southern China. By December last year, more than 200 people had been “vaccinated” with 500 doses of the fake vaccine.
China’s Ministry of Public Security this week launched a campaign to crack down on the production and sale of counterfeit vaccines. The latest cases were outlined in a ruling by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate of China, which said it would crack down on fake vaccines.
The Global Times newspaper said public security departments had checked with the vaccine manufacturers several times to confirm that the vaccines illegally sold in markets were fake products produced by suspects, and had not come from the manufacturers.
There are concerns that fake vaccines could undermine confidence in China’s vaccine rollout. About 40 million people in China have been vaccinated so far, well short of an earlier government target of 100 million. This is about three doses of vaccines per 100 people.
China has used strict lockdowns, contact tracing and mass testing to avoid a repeat of the repeated coronavirus outbreaks experienced in the United States, Brazil, India and Europe despite its large population. However, small clusters in the country’s north-east meant millions of people had to stay at home for the Lunar New Year holiday this week because of government restrictions on travel.
China has ramped up production of vaccinations made by state-owned Sinopharm and Sinovac but sent large amounts overseas as part of diplomatic efforts to counter criticism of its early handling of the outbreak.
While China has criticized other countries’ vaccines and handling of the outbreak, concerns about the effectiveness of the Chinese vaccines and delays distributing them have hampered its international rollout.