Lebogang Mokoena Journalist & columnist

I have a suspicion that in the coming months, underground websites will be full of ads for coronavirus vaccines. Clearly, (some) people are desperate to get the vaccine, and you don’t need a doctorate in sociology to realise that any restrictions on resources — especially ones that might stand between life and death — will fuel an underground market eager to capitalise on this.

So, without being alarmist, let’s engage with history. 

Last year during the 21-day hard lockdown in March/April, the government implemented a blanket ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco, and limited people’s movement. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s reasoning at the time was that restricting alcohol and tobacco would allow the government to build up adequate resources in hospitals, so that the country could better cope with the number of people who might get sick. Soon after, the stories of home-made alcohol substitutes, like pineapple beer, were everywhere.

The numbers are sketchy, but at last count, it seems that more than 20 people died after drinking home-brewed alcohol at the peak of the lockdown. Then there was the cigarette ban. Illicit sales, as everyone knows, rocketed and channels of illegal trade were entrenched. In 2019, illicit tobacco sales cost SA R8bn in lost revenue — and you can imagine how much more this is today.

Given that what have been successfully created during the lockdown are fabulously successful illegal sales channels, we need to confront the uncomfortable reality that we’re likely to see a proliferation of fake vaccines.

Of course, had the government used the past few months to ensure that it had deals with vaccine producers nailed down, maybe SA would be in a much better position. But instead, many of our politicians were obsessing over how to shut down the economy, while others were scheming how to get their slice of the R500bn stimulus package into their pockets.

Anyway, we’re here now, after many months of the government dilly-dallying with people’s lives.  Already, there are disturbing signs. In late November, the police found a warehouse in Germiston, Gauteng, packed with 400 vials of unregistered vaccines and masks, valued at an estimated R6m.

It led to Interpol, the global policing body, issuing an alert to law enforcement agencies in its 194 member countries warning them to prepare for organised crime networks targeting Covid-19 vaccines. Interpol said the fake vaccines had been advertised using Chinese social media platform WeChat.

Apparently, the fake vaccines were imported from Singapore to SA, and were declared at OR Tambo International Airport as “cosmetic injections”. Interpol warned that there were no fewer than 3‚000 websites linked to online pharmacies suspected of selling illicit medicines and medical devices.

Already fake Covid vaccines are popping up overseas. Two weeks ago, the BBC reported that a man named David Chambers was arrested in London after posing as a National Health Service (NHS) worker and injecting a 92-year-old woman with a fake vaccine. 

But Africa has had a problem with fake and unregulated medical vendors for some time. In Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, there is a market called Roxy which is famous for selling counterfeit and substandard medicine. The poorest flock there, since lifesaving treatment isn’t easy, or cheap, to get otherwise. More than 100,000 people are estimated to die because of counterfeit medication in Africa every year.

Globally, that number stands at 1-million per year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).   It’s such a scourge that one in 10 medicines being used in developing countries are said to be counterfeit or deficient. 

Since Ramaphosa’s government has left it far too late to get Covid-19 vaccines, SA will have to be on its guard to ensure its citizens aren’t tempted to try to get the product through illicit channels. And we have to ensure that when SA finally gets its first shipment of vaccines, its citizens end up getting the real vaccine. Lives depend on it.

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