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Fake virus vaccines sold online for $15k

Fake "vaccines" allegedly made from the blood of recovered coronavirus patients are among hundreds of COVID-19 related products being sold on the dark web.

Researchers from the Australian National University's Cybercrime Observatory, in a report commissioned by the Australian Institute of Criminology, surveyed 20 "darknet markets" earlier this month for medical products and supplies.

They discovered 645 listings of 222 items from 110 unique vendors across 12 markets, according to the report released today. The estimated value of all unique listings was $369,000.

While there is currently no proven vaccine available, purported vaccines made up about 6 per cent of all listings.

"COVID-19 antidote is here from China," one read. Another said, "COVID-19 cure vaccine. Keep quiet on this."

The median price of a vaccine was $575, but three vendors on one marketplace were selling a vaccine allegedly sourced from China priced from $US10,000 to $US15,000 ($15,300 to $22,900).

"Details about the origin or composition of vaccines were sparse, but they are likely fraudulent," the researchers write. "There may also be experimental vaccines illegally diverted from research laboratories conducting animal or human trials, or even sourced from patients who have recovered from COVID-19."

Speaking to the ABC's AM program, lead researcher Rod Broadhurst said, "The word I think is passive vaccination, where the blood plasma of a recovered COVID-19 patient is harvested for the antibodies and that is then used to inject into someone who may be at risk of COVID-19."

Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, sanitisers, gowns and gloves accounted for nearly half of all unique listings and more than a third of total listings.

Prices and quantities varied wildly, from $US1 for an unspecified quantity of N95 face masks to $17,952 for 10,000 "good quality lab tested face mask for corona".

Antiviral and other repurposed medicines believed to treat coronavirus were the second most common items after PPE, accounting for almost half of all listings and more than a third of unique listings.

Antimalarial treatments including chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which are cheap and readily available, were listed at inflated prices, as was the antibiotic azithromycin and the antiviral medicine favipiravir.

COVID-19 test kits, industrial thermometers and even a single ventilator, priced at $2000, were among the other products being sold.

One marketplace was selling a book titled "Corona Virus Covid19 Epidemic Survival Handbook Medical Physical Social Economic and Financial Guide".

Most vendors claimed to be shipping from the US, but three claimed to be shipping from Australia. Around two thirds of listings promised to ship worldwide, but four specifically mentioned shipping to Australia.

The researchers also scanned posts on darknet forums to see what cyber-criminals were saying about the pandemic. Some provided guidance for vendors. "Wash your hands regularly, disinfect packages when interacting with mail," one post read.

While some sellers were profiteering from coronavirus, "on the flip side 'ethical' market actors are threatening anyone trying to conduct scams", the researchers found.

One darknet market banned COVID-19 related products for ethical reasons, saying in an announcement, "You do not, under any circumstances use COVID-19 as a marketing tool. No magical cures, no silly f***ing mask selling, toilet paper selling. None of that bullshit. We have class here."

Another forum user wrote, "Anyone who runs coronavirus scams I will personally make it my mission to blow their doxx (personal information) wide open to the entire darknet and the entire LE (law enforcement)."

The researchers concluded that while the availability of COVID-19 related products on darknet markets was "relatively insignificant compared to the availability of other contraband … the presence of fraudulent or untested vaccines and medicines warrants closer attention".

"Indeed, the underground sale of vaccines, real or not, is the key risk presented by darknet sales of COVID-19 products and raises two key concerns," they wrote.

"First, fake vaccines could worsen the spread of the virus because users may behave as if immune but nevertheless become infected. Second, the premature release of vaccines undergoing animal or human trials would also misguide users as to their immunity, but may also impact on the success of these crucial clinical trials."

Originally published as Fake virus vaccines sold online for $15k

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