A photo posted to a private Telegram group shows one vendor’s earnings from selling COVID-related items on the dark web. Image supplied by Georgia State University
In the last week of January 2020, days before the World Health Organisation declared the novel coronavirus a Public Health Emergency, Jason started stockpiling testing kits.
Acting on a tip-off from connections in China and Hong Kong, the US-based businessman pulled together a network of like-minded entrepreneurs who bought thousands of COVID-19 IgM/IgG Rapid Tests directly from a handful of factories in Germany and Korea.
Even at that point, with less than 8,000 confirmed cases of infection across 19 countries, Jason sensed that coronavirus testing kits would become a hot commodity in the months to come. And he was right. Today, he’s selling boxes of them online for more than $11,000 USD.
There’s been no greater market force in 2020 than that of Sars-CoV2. With global infections continuing to surge—the worldwide tally is fast approaching 30 million at the time of writing—the demand for essential items like face masks, hand sanitisers and ventilators has skyrocketed.
At the same time, the virus has slowed mass production capabilities and brought international trade to a standstill, meaning supply has gone through the floor. And with the global pandemic showing no signs of abating anytime soon, people in need are turning to the dark web to source emergency medical goods.
Speaking to VICE News over Wickr, Jason (not his real name) revealed that he’s sold 8,000 COVID-19 testing kits on the dark web to date—each one going for $180 USD a piece. Half of those were snapped up by medical centres in Italy and the United States; 1,000 went to a geriatric home in an unspecified location; while another 3,000 were bought out by a single individual, who Jason suspects was acting on behalf of a mystery government or hospital.
All of these buyers, he said, were desperate to get their hands on the kits.
“There was real urgency in buying … there was real panic,” he said. “There was a shortage [of test kits] and not so many institutions had access to the factories to buy because most orders were pre-booked by governments worldwide.
“Our kits were all accumulated when it wasn’t so common,” he added. “We managed to divert some wares and stock up on some.”
There are still supply shortages in a number of countries around the globe. England and Scotland ran out of coronavirus home testing kits within a matter of hours in late-August, while laboratories have been struggling to clear a backlog of tests since the end of July. Blows to the United States’ manufacturing sector has resulted in multiple shortages over the past few months, with some medical centres only allowed to administer 25 test kits a day to a patient cohort of several thousand.
Last week, Zimbabwe’s Defence Minister announced that the country is facing “some serious shortage of these test kits”, forcing them to order 220 more for a nation of some 14.4 million people. According to Jason, that government could buy thousands of kits directly from him in a single batch.
Jason isn’t the only illegal operator who’s found a way to profiteer during the pandemic. VICE News found dozens of online dealers peddling spurious coronavirus “vaccines”, along with sheets of hydroxychloroquine pills and the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients for nearly $16,000 USD per liter.
With governments and authorities around the world struggling to address the overwhelming public health crisis, desperate people—and, if what Jason says is true, institutions—are gravitating towards underground trading posts to source highly coveted medical goods.
“The pandemic has sparked a new type of demand on darknet platforms that darknet entrepreneurs are happy to meet with supplies,” David Maimon, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University, told VICE News over email. “Governments’ responses to the pandemic have also opened a range of opportunities for darknet vendors and their supply chain to take advantage of.”
Associate Professor Maimon explained that darknet vendors have adapted to the pandemic in two major ways. First, they’ve diversified their portfolio and added new types of products to their inventory that they never would have sold before. Scroll through almost any dark web marketplace and this becomes clear: pharmaceutical grade protective equipment like face masks and hand sanitizer lotions now sit side-by-side with Glock 19 millimetre handguns and uncut crystals of MDMA.
Secondly, vendors are having to ask customers to be more patient with shipment times.
Maimon points out that online fraudsters have also found new ways to defraud both the government and law-abiding citizens,and urges serious caution for anyone thinking of entering into a transaction with a darknet dealer like Jason.
“Many of these vendors take advantage of the panic,” he said. “There are some who promise to sell all kinds of remedies which are probably fake, [while] others sell protective gear like masks and hand santizers [amid] a worldwide shortage … [and] we have strong reason to believe it’s of low quality. We even know of some groups who sell used facemasks.”
Any type of protective gear that hasn’t been approved for use by the relevant authorities is not safe for use, says Maimon, who strongly advises against relying on any type of health-related commodity that has been acquired on the dark web.
“Of course there are a lot of fake drugs and commodities out there as well,” he adds, “so consumers need to be vigilant regarding the manufacturers and the vendors they purchase from.”
If Jason can be taken at his word, though, he’s in the business of hoarding and selling coronavirus test kits for reasons that are more altruistic than financial—suggesting that he’s the one who doesn’t have time for anyone not taking the COVID crisis seriously.
“We procured these kits to save lives,” he said. “But we have had some contacts who just play around with inquiries and are not really interested to buy and save lives.”
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