MILAN, Italy, February 19 (Reuters) – Italian police are investigating a bid for a COVID-19 vaccine by an unnamed intermediary to the Veneto regional authorities, suggesting possible attempts to create a black market parallel to national and EU-level procurement processes, two sources. with knowledge of the matter said on Friday.
Veneto governor Luca Zaia and regional health director Luciano Flor said this week they were evaluating two offers they received for a total of 27 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, without specifying who approached them.
Flor said the two bids were selected from a total of about 20 proposals the Veneto region received from various intermediaries in recent days, including some involving Russia’s AstraZeneca and Sputnik vaccines.
The approach is unusual in that drug makers producing vaccines have reached agreements with national governments and, in the case of the European Union, with the European Union Commission, which have negotiated procurement programs on behalf of its members.
The Italian probe is trying to determine whether a parallel market has emerged, said a source with direct knowledge of the investigation. The source said it was unclear whether drug makers could legally sell their vaccines to non-governmental entities in Europe.
“The regulatory framework is completely unclear,” the source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was confidential and ongoing.
Andrew Widger, a spokesman for Pfizer, which has produced its vaccine with German partner BioNTech, said “at this time, we are prioritizing the doses available for supply through established agreements with government and supra-government organizations”.
“In the European Union, doses are given directly to the government under the terms of the supply agreement with the European Commission. Currently there is no Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine available through an intermediary, “he added.
BioNTech did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An AstraZeneca spokesman said the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker would not allow the delivery of its vaccine outside of its existing supply agreement with the European Union. There should be no supplies from the private sector to sell or distribute in Europe, he said.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund that is responsible for marketing the Sputnik V vaccine abroad, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The chairman of the European Union Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said this week there was an increase in cases of fraud and fraudulent attempts related to the corona virus vaccine. He said the Commission is taking action to bring those responsible to justice, adding it could be very risky to take vaccines offered by black market traders.
Zaia said on Friday that she had asked her regional health director Flor to write to the Italian NAS police, which specialize in food and drug fraud investigations, to notify them of vaccine offers.
Police visited the Veneto regional headquarters on Friday and retrieved documents regarding the case, one of the sources said.
“I welcome this operation (by the police) because it will ultimately provide clarity and allow us to understand whether we are dealing with a fraud or not,” Zaia told reporters.
Veneto has also contacted the national drug agency AIFA and Italy’s special COVID-19 commissioner, Domenico Arcuri, to ask them to evaluate whether the offer is valid.
“We haven’t had any negotiations on prices or anything because we are waiting to see if we can continue,” said Zaia. “We don’t know whether the vaccine is good or bad, whether it’s just distilled water. We just do what we have to do – we don’t go to the black market. “
An Arcuri spokesman confirmed contact with Veneto authorities, while AIFA did not comment.
In a related case, prosecutors in the central region of Umbria are investigating a man who they say claims to be a legitimate trader and tried to sell a dose of AstraZeneca vaccine to local authorities there. (Additional reporting by Riccardo Bastianello in Padua, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt and Mike Erman in New York Editing by Frances Kerry)