Health & Science

Beware of COVID Vaccine Scams. Here's How to Make Sure You Get a Real One

Dado Ruvic | Illustration | Reuters
  • Many Americans may have to wait months for a COVID vaccine.
  • In the meantime, scammers are preying on people's desperation to protect themselves from a virus that has sickened more than 15 million Americans and left over 200,000 dead by pushing fake immunizations.
  • Make sure you get the real treatment.

"I can't produce enough for the masses," Johnny T. Stine wrote on Facebook in May, "but in 18 months, when the virus is long gone, everyone will have access to the vaccine that I have now."

Stine, founder of North Coast Biologics in Seattle, said he'd already given a COVID vaccine to 12 people in the city he lived, and was off to Alaska to immunize more. He explained that he's "not here to save the world" but that he's making his product available to those "who may be at a greater risk."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission on May 21 sent Stine a warning letter, saying it was unlawful to advertise that a product can prevent a disease unless you can prove it with scientific evidence.

Clearly, Stine couldn't do so.

The letter stated that Stine was advertising "unapproved and misbranded products related to COVID-19."

It went on to state: "The FDA is taking urgent measures to protect consumers from certain products that, without licensure, approval, or authorization by FDA, claim to mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19 in people ... you have offered a product for sale that is intended to mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19 in people. We request that you take immediate action to cease the sale of such unlicensed, unapproved, and unauthorized products for the mitigation, prevention, treatment, diagnosis, or cure of COVID-19."

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It wasn't until this fall that ModernaPfizer and AstraZeneca announced that their COVID vaccines were up to 90% (or more) effective in clinical trials. The news provided hope after an especially dark year.

However, the preventative treatments could still be months away for many people. A recent report found that President Donald Trump turned down a deal with Pfizer months ago for additional rounds of the vaccine, meaning many Americans may have to watch those in other countries get the immunization before they do.

In the meantime, scammers like Stine are preying on people's desperation to protect themselves from a virus has that has already sickened more than 15 million Americans and left over 200,000 dead.

(Stine did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

"Obviously, in the context of COVID, demand for vaccines will far outweigh initial supply, and we can anticipate that bad actors will rush to fill that gap," said Karen Gardner, chief marketing officer at SIPCA North America, a global security company.

One factor making matters worse is that legitimate companies and government officials typically have more time to roll out treatments and implement safeguards against fraud than they do during the pandemic, Gardner said.

"Given the urgency of distributing COVID-19 vaccine and the speed with which vaccines are being moved to market, it appears likely that – at least in the initial round of vaccine production and delivery – some vaccines may not incorporate all available security features to prevent fraud," she said.

People who fall for these false advertisements face grave consequences. Such phony products, which haven't been subjected to rigorous testing or clinical trials, could make you ill.

"There is also enormous risk that those individuals – thinking they are effectively vaccinated – will interact with other, non-vaccinated individuals and lead to the continued spread of this deadly virus," Gardner said.

Any vaccine you get should only be through a licensed medical professional, experts say. Most public health departments will publish a list of approved Covid vaccine providers, Gardner said.

Caitlin Donovan, a spokeswoman for the Patient Advocate Foundation, a nonprofit that helps patients access and pay for health care, recommends people try to get the vaccine through their primary doctor.

"Ask if there's a waiting list you can sign up for, and if there's a plan for how it's distributed," Donovan said.

Keep in mind that most people aren't going to get a vaccine in the U.S. until the summer, she said.

"If someone tells you it's available right now, that's a scam," Donovan said.

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