Tue | Jan 26, 2021

Beware of COVID-19 scams as vaccine approaches FDA approval

Published:Monday | November 30, 2020 | 9:15 AM
Director of the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center Steve Francis, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The coronavirus vaccine inching toward approval in the U.S. is desperately anticipated by weary Americans longing for a path back to normal life. But criminals are waiting, too, ready to use that desperation to their advantage, federal investigators say.

Homeland Security investigators are working with Pfizer, Moderna and dozens of other drug companies racing to complete and distribute the vaccine and treatments for the virus. The goal: to prepare for the scams that are coming, especially after the mess of criminal activity this year with phony personal protective equipment, false cures and extortion schemes.

“We’re all very excited about the potential vaccine and treatments,” said Steve Francis, assistant director for global trade investigations with Homeland Security Investigations. “But I also caution against these criminal organizations and individuals that will try to exploit the American public.”

No vaccine has yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has approved the first treatment for COVID-19, the antiviral drug remdesivir. With vaccines and treatments both, it has warned about the potential for fraud.

“The FDA is particularly concerned that these deceptive and misleading products might cause Americans to delay or stop appropriate medical treatment, leading to serious and life-threatening harm,” the agency said in a recent statement.

The drug companies are to have safeguards and brand-protection features in place to help avoid fraud, but that may not be available until the second generation of vaccine because everything is operated on such an emergency basis, said Karen Gardner, chief marketing officer at SIPCA North America, a company that works as a bridge between the government, businesses and consumers. She said that makes it more important to educate health care providers on what the real thing looks like.

“When you have anything in high demand and limited supply, there is going to be fraud,” she said. Desperation will drive people around normal channels.

A vaccine can’t come fast enough, as virus cases have topped 13 million in the U.S. and many cities have started restricting movement again as the country heads into winter. The pandemic has killed more than 1.4 million people worldwide, more than 266,000 of them in the U.S., according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

If the FDA allows emergency use of a vaccine, there will be limited, rationed supplies before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security investigators and others are trying to send the message now to the public before the vaccines are approved and begin distribution. They say people should only get a vaccine from an approved medical provider. They shouldn’t respond to calls seeking personal information. And they shouldn’t click on social media posts purporting to sell cures.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it is,” Francis said.

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