EU's anti-fraud agency warns against fake COVID vaccines

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Mock inoculation exercise ahead of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination campaign in Kawasaki

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union governments should be on guard against fraudsters offering fake COVID-19 vaccines, the bloc's anti-fraud office said on Monday, as the continent struggles to roll out mass inoculation while lockdowns ravage its economy.

The EU aims to vaccinate 70% of its adult population by the end of the summer. That's a tall order -- the inoculation campaign has been hit by delays and supply disruptions so far this year.

The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) said it was aware of reports of fraudsters seeking to sell vaccines in the EU, including through offering fake vaccines.

"They are hoaxes organised to defraud national authorities looking to step up the pace of vaccination to keep their citizens safe," the agency said in a statement.

OLAF said it was extending its inquiry into fake COVID-19 protection products to tackle illicit vaccine trade coming from illegal imports as well as counterfeit medicines.

Since opening the investigation last March, OLAF said, it had helped identify over 1,000 suspicious operations and seize over 14 million items, including faulty face masks and fake test kits.

The COVID-19 public health crisis and related economic slump are the top of the EU government's agenda in a year when countries from Germany and the Netherlands to Bulgaria and the Czech Republic hold national elections.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Larry King)