'Playing with our lives': India hit by bogus Covid-19 vaccines

As citizens scramble for life-saving vaccines, fraudsters are masquerading as private suppliers

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Criminals in India are posing as official Covid-19 vaccination teams, charging a fee for unsuspecting members of the public to receive a jab.

But their syringes are filled with saline water, a solution with antibiotics or other unknown substances.

The fraudsters are taking advantage of public desperation to get vaccinated amid a faltering national inoculation programme and fears about a looming third wave of the disease, which has killed at least 250,000 people in India and infected 20 million.

Rishabh Kamdar, 25, struggled for weeks to secure a Covid-19 vaccine slot on an overwhelmed government portal.

I do not have side effects yet but who knows when the long-term effects start showing up. Who knows what is inside our body, what is in our blood?
Rishabh Kamdar, businessman

He was elated when a private company offered him a jab on his doorstep at an upscale Mumbai housing complex.

But the businessman’s happiness was short-lived. Police last week revealed that he and thousands of residents in Mumbai had been cheated out of millions of rupees and had received fake vaccine shots at bogus private vaccination camps.

Police in at least three Indian cities – Mumbai, Kolkata and Thane – are investigating similar cases, in which thousands of people were injected with saline water or antibiotics by gangs, some of which included real doctors.

The ploy was part of a growing number of Covid-19 scams after India was hit by a devastating second wave of Covid-19 infections that nearly collapsed its healthcare system. Millions of people were left to deal with criminals selling fake or overpriced life-saving drugs, and medical oxygen.

Mumbai Police said more than 2,000 people had been given fake vaccines over the past weeks at so-called vaccination camps in the city, including at nine housing complexes and fake private clinics.

“The camp felt like a blessing but it soon turned into the most terrifying experience,” Mr Kamdar told The National.

“I do not have side effects yet but who knows when the long-term effects start showing up," he said. "Who knows what is inside our body, what is in our blood?"

Mumbai is one of the worst-hit cities in India.

As case numbers exploded amid a widespread shortage of doses, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in May extended the free vaccination drive to everyone above the age of 18.

Vaccine shortages left many citizens struggling to secure appointments at government hospitals.

Many sought paid vaccine shots from private companies and hospitals. This was an attempt to bypass long waits and shortages at the government’s Co-Win free vaccination portal, opting for mass inoculation camps for speedy appointments.

Online fraudsters

Last month, police in Delhi arrested two men for creating a fake vaccination website to target people as they frantically searched for slots.

Thousands were duped and the con men netted $4 million before they were stopped.

On May 30, Mr Kamdar’s Hiranandani Heritage housing complex organised a vaccination camp for its 390 residents through a private business that claimed to be connected to a hospital in the city.

Mr Kamdar and other residents were given shots labelled as the locally produced version of the Astra-Zeneca jab, the Serum Institute of India’s Covishield.

Each shot cost 1,200 rupees ($16).

Covid-19: Delta and Delta Plus strains explained

Covid-19: Delta and Delta Plus strains explained

But days after receiving the shots no one from the complex had any post-vaccination symptoms, raising suspicions.

“It was a red flag,” Mr Kamdar said.

“No one received vaccine certificates on the same day and after follow-ups for a week, some got the certificates from four different hospitals. When we cross-checked with hospitals, they denied issuing them. It was only then that residents approached the police.”

A private company in the city also organised a similar camp for their 514 employees but also received fake vaccines at their office.

Police say they have arrested 10 people, including two doctors, on charges of attempted manslaughter as they investigate the contents of the fake vaccine.

Vaccine camps

“In some cases, the scammers gave saline water to people,” Vishal Thakur, a senior police officer, told The National.

Mr Thakur’s counterparts in eastern Kolkata city arrested six people in a separate case for organising similar camps and administering the antibiotic Amikacin to more than 1,000 people over the past two weeks.

Kolkata Police arrested the main suspect, Debanjan Deb, on charges of attempted manslaughter after they received a complaint from local MP Mimi Chakraborty, who received the shot along with 200 other people.

Ms Chakraborty took part in one of the camps organised by the accused, who allegedly posed as a civil servant and requested the MP come to the camp to raise public awareness about the importance of being vaccinated.

“I instantly accepted the invitation and decided to get the jab to encourage others. When I realised I was misguided, I instantly informed the police,” Ms Chakraborty told local media.

The fraud poses a new challenge to the country's vaccine drive. The campaign has been battling shortages and vaccine hesitancy in rural areas, amid the lingering fear of a possible third wave and the scourge of mutations like the highly contagious Delta Plus variant.

India has given nearly 330 million vaccine doses since January but experts say this is not enough and leaves the country's population of 1.3 billion unprotected.

In early June, Mr Modi announced free vaccinations and promised that supply chains would be seamless to inoculate tens of millions by the end of this year. But victims fear these fraud attempts may derail the ambitious drive.

“These scammers are playing with the lives of the people for money,” said Hiten Patel, whose 18-year-old son was injected with a fake vaccine at Hiranandani Housing complex.

“People are trying to ruin this drive,” he said.

Updated: November 01, 2021, 10:18 AM