Scammers have utilized every tool at their disposal to pry credit card numbers, passwords, and Medicare information out of consumers during the covid-19 outbreak: robocalls, phishing emails, and texts masked as World Health Organization PSAs; e-commerce facades advertising household items; sham charities; and, especially, promises of a non-existent vaccine. This weekend, the Department of Justice announced its first target, the unnamed creator of a website called “coronavirusmedicalkit.com.” The site claimed to distribute World Health Organization “vaccine kits” for the suspiciously low price of $4.95.
The site has been shut down after a federal judge issued a restraining order, but in a complaint filed in Texas on Saturday, Department of Justice attorneys described an online store bearing a photo of Anthony Fauci with the statement: “Due to the recent outbreak for the Coronavirus (COVID-19) the World Health Organization is giving away vaccine kits. Just pay $4.95 for shipping.” The site allegedly showed a FedEx logo alongside a credit card field. Screengrabs included in the DOJ’s exhibits show that the site described the vaccine as a “just-add-water” concoction, to be “administered,” somehow:
You just need to add water, and the drugs and vaccines are ready to be administered. There are two parts to the kit: one holds pellets containing the chemical machinery that synthesises the end product, and the other holds pellets containing instructions that tell the drug which compound to create. Mix two parts together in a chosen combination, add water, and the treatment is ready.
The same language appears nearly verbatim in a 2016 Science Alert blog post regarding freeze-dried vaccine components.
It even included a bizarre “what users are saying” section with no actual review of the purported vaccine’s effectiveness, but six nonsensically decontextualized clips all lifted directly from a Science Daily release, such as: “The studies consisted of estimations of the growth rate based upon the cases observed in the Chinese population, and based upon statistical and mathematical methods.”
The investigation is ongoing, and it remains unclear how many people attempted to get a “free” WHO vaccine kit. The identity of the person behind the site also remains unknown (the defendant is a John Doe) but the allegation of wire fraud seems pretty open-and-shut.
The Department of Justice looks likely to pursue other perpetrators; it has created a site solely devoted to covid-19, and, earlier this month, Attorney General William Barr instructed every U.S. Attorney’s office “to prioritize the detection, investigation, and prosecution of all criminal conduct related to the current pandemic.”
While the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (a division of the National Institutes of Health) has announced that it’s begun clinical trials for a covid-19 vaccine, the Guardian points out that vaccines usually take “a decade or more” of development before regulatory approval. Annelies Wilder-Smith, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the paper that the oft-cited “18-month” horizon is wishful.
The World Health Organization is undertaking clinical trials in several countries to attempt to treat people already infected with covid-19 using existing antiviral medications, but it has made no promises of deadlines. Certainly not free vaccines, no matter what an email from a “who.com” domain might tell you.