| 14 April 2024, Sunday |

Abu Dhabi art gallery owner has a sideline business: trading COVID-19 vaccines

ABU DHABI: From a small office in an Abu Dhabi skyscraper, Ukrainian national Natalya Muzaleva and her Hungarian husband Istvan Perger run an art gallery, a real estate agency and an oilfield services company.

They have also pursued another venture: selling coronavirus vaccines into Europe.

Muzaleva wrote a proposal to the Czech ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), reviewed by Reuters and dated Feb. 24, offering to procure and sell at least 1 million shots to the Czech Republic of Covishield, the shot from Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca.

She noted that the vaccines would be supplied by an unnamed partner from AstraZeneca’s “UK and India plant” and delivery would follow within 45 days of payment being received.

While the Czech cabinet did not take up the offer, it came to light on March 3 when PM Andrej Babis, singling Muzaleva out by name, told a news conference he would not support the “black market”.

Reached at her mobile number, Muzaleva said there had been “no deal” but declined to address the matter further. She did not respond to subsequent written questions. Reuters could not establish whether Muzaleva was in a position to access the vaccines.

After the Czech cabinet made the unsolicited offer public, AstraZeneca said there should be no private sector supply deals for the sale or distribution of the vaccine in Europe.

The drugmaker did not respond to requests for further comment for this story on Muzaleva’s proposal.

The Abu Dhabi media office also did not respond when asked whether authorities were aware of Muzaleva’s offer or whether they had investigated it.

Muzaleva’s email, details of which have not previously been reported, provides another window into how private individuals have tried to make money by offering jabs to countries amid a global shortfall of vaccinations and as coronavirus infections increase.

In neighboring Germany, the government said it had received multiple offers of vaccines from intermediaries. Its response has been to tip off the manufacturer, the European Commission and, in some cases, international law enforcement.

“This pandemic is creating a gold rush atmosphere in which people try to do all kinds of deals,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told a news conference in Berlin on April 9 on efforts to curb the pandemic.

“Our government buys exclusively from manufacturers,” he said in reply to a question on whether the cabinet had received unofficial vaccine proposals and how it handled them.

The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), an EU agency, said a dozen European countries had reported offers by intermediaries to sell large quantities of vaccines, with the apparent aim of securing down payments before disappearing with the money.

Such intermediaries had been inactive or trading in very diverse types of goods until recently, OLAF said in response to Reuters questions. It declined to discuss specific cases.

They are often located in third countries outside the EU “to make their identification more difficult and hard to investigate”, OLAF added.

In total, OLAF has observed scams or fake offers for nearly 1 billion vaccine shots, at a total asking price of almost 14 billion euros ($17 billion). It knew of no cases where a cabinet had paid up for such a scam.

  • Reuters