SYDNEY — Criminal groups are offering unproven treatments for Covid-19 on the dark web, including vials of blood from recovered patients and samples of vaccines that are still under clinical testing.
Researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) found 645 listings for medical products, supplies and treatments related to the virus during a survey of 20 online market places on Tor, highly encrypted the browser used to access dark net sites.
Commissioned by the Australian Institute of Criminology, a government research think tank, the study estimated that the 222 unique listings had a combined market value of A$369,000 (US$241,720), with several alleged Covid-19 treatments being offered for almost $A25,000 (US$16,377).
It is thought some of the “cures” are vaccine candidates that are still being tested in laboratories. Other supposed treatments range from the surreal to the implausible, including cow urine, colloidal silver, and even the household cooking herb oregano.
While there are several clinical tests underway to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, there is no known cure for the lethal disease.
“We know a lot of this stuff will probably be bullshit, but there will be a lot of genuine stuff as well,” said ANU researcher Rod Broadhurst. “Apart from the fact people think they’re immune when they’re not … there’s an element of concern there about diversion from real [vaccine] trials.”
Twelve omnibus markets are offering Covid-19 products, but three carry 85% of all unique listings. DrugLord22, a vendor with 23 listings, offers products worth A$302,467 (US$198,286); Safetrade lists products valued at A$8,350 (US$5,474) and Kinghacks has A$99,598 (US$65,293) worth of listings.
There are 110 individual vendors in the market, with 394 of the products shipped from the US, 39 from the European Union, 17 from the United Kingdom and three each from China-Hongkong and Australia. Two come from India. A further 182 products, or 28.2% of the total, are from unknown sources.
The researchers found 41 supposed vaccines or antidotes for sale, and 313 antiviral or repurchased medicines, including 125 listings for the drug chloroquine, 105 for hydroxychloroquine and 79 for azithromycin. More than 100 potential vaccines are being tested, but none has been certified.
Chloroquine has been approved as a treatment in several countries, but only at levels found to be safe. At least one person has died in the US after taking chloroquine phosphate; studies have shown that there may be a risk of fatal heart complications from repeated doses of the medicine.
Hydroxychloroquine is also being tested as a possible treatment. However, there are concerns that black market sales could lead to shortages of the drug for people with other medical ailments, including arthritis and lupus.
“Cures” and purported antidotes for the virus are being offered for an average of A$575 (US$377). Blood that was supposedly taken from recovered patients is being offered as a “passive vaccine” to protect those who haven’t yet been infected.
“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,” said Broadhurst, who was the lead researcher in the ANU investigation.
Social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram are also being flooded with offers of Covid-19 products, including testing kits, though the vendors are thought to be mainly opportunists rather than organized crime gangs.
Dark net vendors are also offering 59 tests and diagnostics for Covid-19 — 28 test kits and 31 thermo or industrial scanners. Their reliability is unknown, but some medical agencies have been duped with faulty or bogus equipment.
Many products have been listed for prices that are well above the market rates in countries like Australia and the US, reflecting supply shortages. It is now difficult to secure protective gear like masks in large quantities.
One vendor, for instance, is offering a bulk sale of 10,000 “good quality lab-tested face mask for corona” for A$17,952 (US$11,781).
In early April, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested a man who offered to sell “prevention pills” to an undercover agent and fake test kits were seized at the Los Angeles airport as they were being shipped to the UK.
The US Justice Department launched its first enforcement action against a site alleged to be selling Covid-19 vaccines in March. Many more are likely.
Angelo Mazza, a US intellectual property attorney who recently wrote a brief on Covid-19 counterfeits, said the racket was occurring on a global scale.
“If it sounds too good to be true, there’s likely a problem,” he said. “Let’s look out for the guys selling the magic beans — all the different cliches that come to mind, they’re going to apply tenfold here.”