Fake shots for the pandemic can be easy to distinguish from real ones, experts said, because legitimate ones can be found for now sold only to governments, making any shots for sale on the internet counterfeit and potentially harmful.
Police in China and South Africa last month seized thousands of doses of counterfeit Covid-19 vaccines in warehouses and manufacturing plants, arresting dozens of people, according to the international police agency Interpol. Mexico also is investigating a shipment of some 6,000 doses of purported Sputnik vaccine from Russia, which were seized from a private plane headed to Honduras in March.
The Russia Direct Investment Fund, which leads efforts to market the vaccine internationally, said an analysis of photographs of the seized batch “suggests that it is a fake.” The Mexican Attorney General’s Office said it was investigating the matter and declined to comment further. Authorities haven’t determined whether the vaccines are genuine.
For months, agents from the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, an investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, have been investigating fraud related to the Covid-19 pandemic globally, recovering $48 million of phony masks, personal protective equipment and other products. Last fall, investigators shifted their focus to include Covid-19 vaccines that were nearing potential clearance by regulators, beginning with online scams. They have removed 30 websites and seized 74 web domains, according to IPR Center officials.
Since mid-January, confirmed Covid-19 infections in South Africa have fallen from a record of nearly 22,000 a day to around 1,000, without a large-scale vaccination campaign or stringent lockdown. Fewer than 5% of Covid-19 tests are finding traces of the virus, a sign health agencies are missing fewer cases. The government has lifted most remaining restrictions for the country of 60 million people.
The cause of this steep decline in cases remains somewhat of a mystery. As in other countries that have at some point experienced surprising drops in Covid-19 cases — such as India, Pakistan and some parts of Brazil — epidemiologists and virologists are piecing together different explanations for why the outbreak in South Africa isn’t following patterns set elsewhere.
Those include important population groups reaching sufficient levels of immunity to slow transmission, people sticking more closely to social-distancing rules, such as wearing masks and voluntarily reducing contacts, when deaths were mounting before the decline.
A similar trial in South Africa, where a new, more contagious variant is dominant, produced similar results. Researchers found the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be slightly less effective at preventing all illness there – 64% overall – but was still 82% effective at preventing severe disease. The FDA report also indicates that the vaccine protects against other variants from Britain and Brazil too.
As Americans anxiously watch variants first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa spread in the United States, scientists are finding a number of new variants that originated here. More concerning, many of these variants seem to be evolving in the same direction — potentially becoming contagious threats of their own.
In a study posted on Sunday, a team of researchers reported seven growing lineages of the novel coronavirus, spotted in states across the country. All of them have evolved a mutation in the same genetic letter.
“There’s clearly something going on with this mutation,” said Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveportand a co-author of the new study.
On January 15, US public health officials warned that a more contagious variant of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 could dominate infections in the United States by March. That grim warning referred to B.1.1.7, a variant that was first identified in the United Kingdom.
But now, one week later, scientists are increasingly concerned about another variant that emerged in South Africa.
There’s evidence from several small, and not-yet-peer-reviewed, studies that mutations in the South Africa variant — known as 501Y.V2 and already present in at least 23 countries — may have a higher risk of Covid-19 reinfection in people who’ve already been sick and still should have some immunity to the disease.