Illicit COVID-19 products online: A mixed-method approach for identifying and preventing online health risks

Article


Catalani, V., Townshend, H. D., Prilutskaya, M., Chilcott, R. P., Metastasio, A., Banayoti, H., McSweeney, T. and Corazza, O. 2023. Illicit COVID-19 products online: A mixed-method approach for identifying and preventing online health risks. PLoS ONE. 18 (6), p. e0287231. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0287231
AuthorsCatalani, V., Townshend, H. D., Prilutskaya, M., Chilcott, R. P., Metastasio, A., Banayoti, H., McSweeney, T. and Corazza, O.
Abstract

Aims
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a demand for vaccines, cures, and the need of related documentation for travel, work and other purposes. Our project aimed to identify the illicit availability of such products across the Dark Web Markets (DWMs).

Methods
A retrospective search for COVID-19 related products was carried out across 118 DWMs since the start of the pandemic (March 2020-October 2021). Data on vendors as well as advertised goods such as asking price, marketplace, listed date were collected and further validated through additional searches on the open web to verify the information relating to specific marketplaces. Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used for data analysis.

Results
Forty-two listings of unlicenced COVID-19 cures and vaccination certificates were identified across 8 marketplaces sold by 25 vendors with significant variation in prices. The listings were found to be geographically specific and followed the progression of the pandemic in terms of availability. Correlations between vendor portfolios of COVID-19 products and variety of goods of other illicit nature such as illegal weaponry, medication/drugs of abuse also emerged from our analysis.

Conclusion
This study is one of the first attempts to identify the availability of unlicenced COVID-19 products on DWMs. The easy accessibility to vaccines, fake test certificates and hypothetical/illegal cures poses serious health risks to (potential) buyers due to the uncontrolled nature of such products. It also exposes buyers to an unwanted contact with vendors selling a variety of other dangerous illicit goods. Further monitoring and regulatory responses should be implemented to protect the health and safety of citizens especially at times of global crisis.

JournalPLoS ONE
Journal citation18 (6), p. e0287231
ISSN 1932-6203
Year2023
PublisherPublic Library of Science (PLoS)
Publisher's version
License
File Access Level
Anyone
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0287231
Publication dates
Online16 Jun 2023
Publication process dates
Accepted30 May 2023
Deposited04 Jul 2023
Copyright information© 2023, The Author(s)
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