The number of items on dark web marketplaces touted as cures, vaccines or protection from COVID-19 has exploded in recent weeks as criminals seek to make the most of the healthcare crisis.
The Australian Institute of Criminology commissioned an analysis of 20 darknet markets by Australian National University’s Cybercrime Observatory to understand the scope of online sales of items related to COVID-19.
One of the researchers involved, Professor Rod Broadhurst, said the pandemic is an opportunity where criminals can cash in on fear and shortages.
"We found unsafe vaccines, repurposed antivirals - which are in very short supply - and quite a lot of bulk PPE on the dark web.
"The biosecurity hazardous products are the most dangerous because some are marketed as if they have been leaked from real trials. But, they could be fake and we don't know what they are made from."
Of the 12 markets found posting COVID-19 products, just three accounted for 85 percent of all the 645 listings.
Around half of the listings were for personal protective equipment such as surgical masks, often in bulk quantities.
A third of the listing were for anti-viral or repurposed medicines touted as treatments for the disease.
Less than 10 percent of the listings were drugs promoted as vaccines, however, the fake vaccines along with full-body PPE gear and temperature scanners were among the most expensive items.
The most expensive vaccine was listed at $24,598 - shipped from the USA - with the average cost of a vaccine around $575.
Vaccines allegedly sourced from China were costly, fetching up to more than $23,000.
Broadhurst said the underground sale of vaccines and experimental drugs needs to be shut down due to the potential for any number of “nasty” side effects.
"Apart from likely fraud, details about the origin or composition of vaccines were sparse," he said.
“These products may have been diverted from animal or human trials, or even sourced from recovered COVID-19 patients.
"They could also undo a lot of the work done in limiting the spread of the virus and ‘flattening the curve.
"Fake vaccines could assist in the spread of the virus because users may behave as if they are immune but nevertheless become exposed to the coronavirus.
"The premature release of vaccines undergoing animal or human trial would also misguide users as to immunity but may also impact on the success of these crucial clinical trials."
And, he added, this may just be the tip of the iceberg.
“We think we will see more of that and we need some basic monitoring to start shutting it down,” Broadhurst said.
Australian Institute of Criminology deputy director Dr Rick Brown, said the results of the survey will help inform the government's response to people trying to profit from the sale of medical supplies during a pandemic.
"The sale of fake vaccines and other compromised medical items poses a real risk to the health and safety of the public and needs to be dealt with swiftly," he said.
“These results will assist our law enforcement partners in tackling this concerning issue."