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Thousands Given Fake Vaccines Through Scam In India

NOEL KING, HOST:

Police in India are investigating an elaborate fraud. Thousands of people were tricked into paying for COVID-19 shots that turned out to just be saltwater. Here's NPR's India producer Sushmita Pathak in Mumbai.

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: When residents of an upscale apartment complex in Mumbai heard that there was going to be a vaccination camp in their building, nearly 400 of them lined up, including Hitesh Patel (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HITESH PATEL: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: Patel told local TV, the organizers were charging around $17 per shot and claimed to have a tie-up with a big private hospital. The residents welcomed the offer because vaccines were in short supply, and appointments were hard to get. This was in late May, when India was just recovering from the world's deadliest COVID-19 outbreak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATEL: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: At the vaccination booth, the organizers asked Patel and his neighbors not to take any selfies or pictures. For days after getting the shot, no one felt any of the usual side effects - no fever, no sore muscles. That's when people started getting suspicious, Patel says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATEL: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: Their suspicions were confirmed when they started receiving vaccine certificates from different hospitals with different vaccination dates. The hospital said they had nothing to do with the vaccination drive. Dilip Sawant, a top Mumbai police official, says someone with access to the hospital's data entry portals had forged the certificates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DILIP SAWANT: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: Police have arrested 14 people, including staff at a government-run vaccination center. Police allege the group conducted a dozen fake vaccination camps all over Mumbai and scammed some 4,000 people out of tens of thousands of dollars. About half of the victims were injected with saline solution instead of COVID-19 vaccines. Some may have also received expired vaccines.

ANITA SHEKHAR CASTELLINO: How can people play with the lives of people?

PATHAK: Mumbai-based lawyer Anita Shekhar Castellino has filed a public interest lawsuit about the fraud. Fake vaccines were also given to about 500 people in the state of West Bengal. Castellino says news about these scams has left many who got inoculated wondering if they received the real vaccine.

CASTELLINO: It was definitely heartbreaking. It was so sad because I have people calling me up and saying, look; I have taken the vaccine. Do you think I have taken a genuine vaccine?

PATHAK: Castellino says she also worries the scam could fuel vaccine hesitancy at a crucial time when India is trying to ramp up vaccination before a possible third outbreak. Only 5% of Indians are fully vaccinated.

CASTELLINO: It will deter a lot of people who, finally, have decided that, OK, the vaccine is a good thing, and we need to do it.

PATHAK: The outbreak this past spring caused India's health care system to collapse, killing more than 200,000. People were left scrambling for hospital beds and oxygen. Many had to wait for weeks to get a vaccine. It's this desperation that scammers took advantage of.

For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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