Italy probes vaccine scams even as officials court offers


ROME — Italian police investigating fake COVID-19 drugs and vaccines have interviewed a Veneto regional official who reported receiving offers to buy 27 million doses of Pfizer shots outside the European Union procurement system.

Even though the EU anti-fraud agency has warned about scammers offering vaccines amid shortages in Europe, Veneto’s regional governor, Luca Zaia, has boasted for over a week that he had been contacted by unnamed intermediaries offering to sell him Pfizer, Russian and Chinese jabs.

Zaia, a popular governor from the right-wing League party, said he received the offers after publicly voicing frustration over delayed deliveries in Italy and the secrecy of the EU contracts. He said he wanted to buy his own shots for the region outside the national government’s EU deal.

On Friday, Zaia said his health care chief dealing with the offers, Dr. Luciano Flor, was questioned by the carabinieri’s health care squad. The squad confirmed it was searching Veneto regional offices “to look into the presumed providers of vaccines outside agreements with central authorities.”

The carabinieri squad has been issuing near-daily updates of its efforts to crack down on fraudulent COVID-19 drugs, vaccines, protective equipment and e-commerce sites selling them. On Friday it announced it had obscured another four e-commerce websites, bringing to some 250 the number of portals it has blocked.

Police are also investigating a Sicilian man who claimed to be a representative of pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and had offered to sell vaccines to Umbrian authorities. In response, AstraZeneca’s Italy unit said there was currently no private distribution of its shots and that if “someone is offering vaccines via the private sector, they’re probably counterfeit vaccines and should be reported to the competent authorities.”

Zaia revealed details of the purported offers he had received this week, telling a late-night talk show that he had received two contractual proposals for 12 million and 15 million doses of Pfizer shots, at market prices. He said he asked Italy’s virus czar and the national pharmaceutical agency Feb. 3 how to proceed, and on Feb. 12 informed police “because we realize the issue of vaccines is delicate.”

He insisted he had done nothing wrong and that it was up to Italy’s pharmaceutical agency to verify if the offers and vaccines were legitimate. Italy has centralized its COVID-19 vaccine procurement precisely to avoid regions or the private sector going their own way, and to keep prices from skyrocketing.

Just this week, the EU’s anti-fraud office urged member states to be vigilant for vaccine scams, saying organized crime groups might try to take advantage of the EU shortages to defraud member states.

“They may deliver batches of fake vaccines. Or they falsely may purport to represent legitimate business and claim to be in the possession of or have access to vaccines. All of these claims have one thing in common: they are false,” said Ville Itälä, the OLAF director-general.

The EU secured a portfolio of up to 2.6 billion doses that would be largely sufficient to inoculate its 450 million residents. But the rollout has been marred by delays in production and deliveries of shots and the bloc lags behind the vaccination pace of countries like Britain or Israel.

Zaia has cited Israel’s inoculation success in defending his decision to try to get his own shots. Throughout the pandemic, the League governor frequently clashed with the central government in Rome that, until a few weeks ago, was headed by the 5-Star Movement and center-left Democratic Party.

Italy has currently administered 3.37 million doses, prioritizing health care workers and residents of nursing homes. In the last two weeks, residents over age 80 started getting shots, and public health officials reported Friday that infections in that age category had declined last week for the first time as a direct result of the vaccine campaign.

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