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Police probe side offers of COVID vaccines to Italian regions

MILAN, Italy, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Italian police are investigating the offer of COVID-19 vaccines by unnamed intermediaries to Veneto regional authorities, indicating a possible attempt to create a black market parallel to the national and EU level procurement process, 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 the Pfizer vaccine, without naming who had approached them.

Flor has said that the two offers were shortlisted from a total of around 20 proposals the Veneto region had received from various intermediaries in recent days, including some involving AstraZeneca’s vaccine and Russia’s Sputnik one.

The approaches are unusual because the drugmakers that manufacture the vaccines have struck deals with national governments and, in the case of the European Union, with the EU Commission, which has negotiated a procurement programme on behalf of its members.

The Italian investigation is trying to establish whether a parallel market had emerged, a source with direct knowledge of the probe said. The source said it was not clear whether drugmakers could legally sell their vaccines to non-governmental entities in Europe.

“The regulatory framework is not clear at all,” the source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity because the probe is confidential and ongoing.

Andrew Widger, a spokesman for Pfizer, which has produced its vaccine with German partner BioNTech, said “currently, we are prioritising our available doses for supply through established agreements with governments and supra-government organisations”.

“In the European Union, doses are supplied directly to governments under the terms of the supply agreement with the European Commission. No Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is available through intermediaries at this time,” he added.

BioNTech did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said the British-Swedish drugmaker has not authorised any shipments of its vaccine outside of its existing supply deal with the European Union. There should not be any private-sector supply of the shots for sale or distribution in Europe, he said.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund which is responsible for marketing the Sputnik V vaccine abroad, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

‘DISTILLED WATER’

The EU Commission’s head, Ursula von der Leyen, said this week there were increasing cases of fraud and fraud attempts related to coronavirus vaccines. She said the Commission was taking action to bring those responsible to justice, adding it could be extremely risky to take vaccines offered by black market traders.

Zaia said on Friday he had asked his regional health director Flor to write to Italy’s NAS police, who specialise in food and drugs fraud investigations, to inform them about the vaccine offers.

Police visited the headquarters of the Veneto region on Friday and took documents concerning the case, one of the sources said.

“I welcome this operation (by the police) because it will finally bring clarity and it will allow us to understand whether we are dealing with fraudsters or not,” Zaia told reporters.

Veneto has also contacted the national medicine agency AIFA and Italy’s special COVID-19 commissioner, Domenico Arcuri, to ask them to evaluate whether the offers were legitimate.

“We have not conducted any negotiations on prices or anything else as we are waiting to see if we can go ahead,” Zaia said. “We don’t know if the vaccines are good or bad, if it’s just distilled water. We only did what we were bound to do - we didn’t go to the black market.”

A spokesman for Arcuri confirmed the contacts with the Veneto authorities, while AIFA had no comment.

In a related case, prosecutors in the central region of Umbria are investigating a man who they say claimed to be a legitimate trader and tried to sell doses of AstraZeneca vaccines to regional authorities there. (Additional reporting by Riccardo Bastianello in Padua, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt and Mike Erman in New York Editing by Frances Kerry)

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