Pfizer identifies fake COVID-19 vaccine doses in Mexico, Poland

Pfizer said it has identified fake versions of its COVID-19 vaccine in Mexico and Poland, one of several reported examples of criminals attempting to exploit the worldwide demand for vaccination against the virus. 

"We are cognizant that in this type of environment – fueled by the ease and convenience of e-commerce and anonymity afforded by the Internet — there will be an increase in the prevalence of fraud, counterfeit and other illicit activity as it relates to vaccines and treatments for COVID-19," the pharmaceutical company said Wednesday in a statement to FOX Television Stations.

About 80 people at a clinic in Mexico received a fake COVID-19 vaccine going for about $1,000 a dose, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier Wednesday. The individuals did not appear to have been physically harmed, according to the outlet.

A substance inside vials found in Poland was likely an anti-wrinkle treatment, according to Reuters. Polish authorities, which seized the fake vaccine at a man’s apartment, said no one had received it.

Main entrance to Pfizer Worldwide Headquarters in Manhattan

FILE - Main entrance to Pfizer Worldwide Headquarters is pictured in Manhattan. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Pfizer said it expects an increase in counterfeiting and other illegal activity surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine and other treatments amid the global pandemic and continues to work to identify such threats.

"Pfizer has extensive experience in criminal risk mitigation and is collaborating with BioNTech to take meaningful steps to help reduce the risk of illicit COVID-19 Vaccine activity," Pfizer’s statement continued. "Our designated team of ex-law enforcement and forensic science specialists are tracking trends very carefully and have processes in place to identify threats to the legitimate supply chain."

The company said it is continuing to work with governments, law enforcement, healthcare providers and others to combat any illegal activity. It’s also asking individuals seeking the vaccine to be aware of how vaccines are normally distributed.

"Patients should never try to secure a vaccine online — no legitimate vaccine is sold online — and only get vaccinated at official vaccination centers or by certified healthcare providers," Pfizer’s statement added.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued additional guidelines regarding COVID-19 scams regarding tests, vaccines and treatments. Tips include being suspicious of products that claim to treat a wide range of diseases, recognizing personal testimonials are no substitute for scientific evidence, and knowing that if it seems too good to be true — it probably is.

The Pfizer-BioNTech two-dose vaccine was the first to get approval for emergency use from the FDA in December. Since then, more than 113 million doses of it have been administered in the U.S.

Interpol, the global police coordination agency, issued a warning in December for countries to be on the lookout for organized crime networks targeting COVID-19 vaccines, both physically and online.

"As governments are preparing to roll out vaccines, criminal organizations are planning to infiltrate or disrupt supply chains," Jürgen Stock, Interpol’s secretary general, said in a statement at the time.

In early March, the agency said police in China identified a network selling counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines and seized more than 3,000 fake doses. In South Africa, some 2,400 doses of fake vaccine were found at a warehouse in the Gauteng province.

The warning comes as the White House seeks to overcome diminishing demand for COVID-19 shots by offering a tax incentive for small businesses offering paid leave for employees who get inoculated.

Half of all U.S. adults — or more than 133 million people — have received at least one dose of a vaccine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Roughly 86 million adults, or about 33% of the total adult population, have been fully vaccinated.

Over the last week, the pace of inoculation in the U.S. has slowed slightly. That is partly a reflection of disruptions from the "pause" in the administration of the Johnson & Johnson shot for a safety review, but also of softening interest for vaccines in many places even as eligibility has been opened to all those older than 16.

President Joe Biden, in a speech from the White House on Wednesday, acknowledged entering a "new phase" in the federal vaccination effort that relies on increased outreach to Americans to get their shots, both to protect them and their communities.

"Vaccines can save your own life, but they can also save your grandmother’s life, your co-worker’s life, the grocery store clerk or the delivery person helping you and your neighbors get through the crisis," Biden said. "That’s why you should get vaccinated."

RELATED: Biden announces tax credits for small businesses offering paid leave for COVID-19 vaccination

This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.