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How vaccination scam unfolded in Mumbai

Between April and June, as the city was hit with a second wave and a lockdown, at least 4,055 residents of Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai found themselves faced with another unfolding catastrophe: the first shot of Covishield vaccine that they had received was fake, and for a few weeks, they had no idea what liquid had been injected into their veins
By Megha Sood, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON JUL 12, 2021 12:03 AM IST

Between April and June, as the city was hit with a second wave and a lockdown, at least 4,055 residents of Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai found themselves faced with another unfolding catastrophe: the first shot of Covishield vaccine that they had received was fake, and for a few weeks, they had no idea what liquid had been injected into their veins.

The scam broke on June 14, when residents of Hiranandani Society in Kandivli realised something was amiss after the CoWin platform generated certificates that got two crucial details wrong: the date of the vaccine drive and the name of the hospital they thought they had tied up with. It turns out that the certificates, like their vaccine doses, were fakes.

The national vaccination drive’s third phase guidelines that opened up vaccination to all adults starting May 1 permitted private hospitals to buy vaccines directly from manufacturers and administer them to people at a higher cost. At the time, only the Centre was buying vaccines from the manufacturers – Serum Institute of India (SII), which produced Covishield, and Bharat Biotech, which produced Covaxin – and distributing these across states. The state governments in turn would distribute a section of these vaccines to private hospitals. The new guidelines allowed states, and private hospitals, to procure vaccines directly from manufacturers who, in turn, increased the price of their vaccines for the market. To make matters easier for citizens who could afford to pay for their vaccines, several housing societies across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region tied up with private hospitals to conduct the vaccination drive.

BMC came out with its standard operating procedure (SOP) for housing societies a week back. As per the new guidelines, nodal officers appointed by the housing society or the office management will ensure that private Covid-19 vaccination centres (PCVC) or private hospitals engaged with vaccination are registered on the CoWin portal. The nodal officers have to contact and verify the authenticity of the PCVC with the local health authority.

Hiranandani Society’s committee members organised a vaccination camp over two days, on May 30 and June 1, after Mahendra Singh approached them with the offer of inoculating the residents (390 in all) with Covishield. Singh said that the vaccines would be procured from Versova’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani hospital. On May 30, the first day of the drive, 390 people received their first shot. Upon receiving their vaccine certificates through email from different hospitals, the residents found crucial details were incorrect. What’s more, they began to receive calls asking for their CoWin platform OTP, an indication that they had not done the due diligence and registered on the platform before vaccination. The society members also had not taken a no objection certificate from BMC to conduct the drive; they did not know and were told it was taken by the accused.

Hiranandani Residents Association filed a first information report (FIR) on June 15, and investigations by Kandivli police revealed that this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Scam comes to light

In all 10 FIRs have been registered in Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai – the latest was registered on July 2. Among the victims are commercial establishments, a school [Podar School] and a housing society [Hiranandani Heritage]. Also a branch of Bank of Baroda. At the heart of it, the scam was a way of making quick money, and it was the brain child of Shivam Hospital owners Dr Shivraj Pataria and his wife Neeta. They roped in Dr Manish Tripathi, who runs Knowledge Centre for Educational Planning (KCEP) Institute, a training centre for nursing students and ward boys in the hospital premises. In all, the police estimates that the trio managed to earn 5 crore through the unsuspecting victims.

Shivam Hospital, located in Kandivli, was a private vaccination centre registered with the BMC. It had the permission to conduct a vaccination drive till April 30. The hospital received over 20,000 vials from the BMC, but police officers said, not all of them were used at the hospital. The doctor-couple kept the empty vials, which were then filled with saline water and used in the scam.

Vishwas Nangre Patil, joint commissioner of police (Law and Order) said at a press conference that the accused administered the leftover vials as well as saline water injections in the camps that they conducted before April 23.

The trio contacted Rajesh Pandey, an employee of Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital. Pandey, who worked in marketing department of the Hospital earlier, directed people approaching his hospital to go to Shivam Hospital for 200 as his commission. Tripathi reached out to Mahendra Singh, an event organiser, who with some acquaintances contacted business establishments with an offer to organise private vaccination camps for their employees and their families. “Singh asked that they contact business establishments with at least 200 employees,” said an officer from the Kandivli police station who was part of the investigating team.

“Since the trio did not have the vaccine stock, they decided to administer saline water to the recipients and decided to give the certificates stamped by Shivam Hospital when they had acquired the desired amount and were in a position to purchase vaccines for the hospital,” the officer added. “Pandey was the face of the fake camps as he was an employee of a reputed hospital who met the prospective clients and convinced them that the camp was government authorised and legitimate,” the officer said.

It was a resident of Hiranandani Heritage society – a trustee of Aditya College in Borivli -- who introduced Singh and Pandey to the society members. “Housing societies were not initially the target of the gang but when 390 residents showed interest in the vaccination camp, the gang went ahead with the camp,” said the officer.

The entire amount was deposited in Tripathi’s bank account.

The trio however had not anticipated that the recipients would ask for certificates immediately. Tripathi came to their rescue -- many of his students were placed at the Nesco jumbo Covid centre in Goregaon and even the Bandra Covid centre to assist civic and government employees in the vaccination drive. Tripathi took the help of some of them involved in data entry on the CoWin application. He asked them to get the login ID of the app and password so that they could use it to forge certificates. In all 14 persons, including the three doctors at the centre of the plot, event organisers and associates, including data entry operators, have been arrested. Investigation is still going on, as police are yet to record statements of some the witnesses in the case.

A spokesperson of Tips Music, which registered an FIR at the Khar police station, said that they gave all facts to the police and were in touch with the civic body for further action, including cancelling the fake certificates their employees received. Spokespersons of other affected companies, including Matchbox, (FIR registered at Versova police station), Kwan Entertainment (FIR registered at Amboli police station), Intercontinental Diamonds (FIR at Samta Nagar police station) and Inter Gold India Pvt ltd (FIR at MIDC police station) refused to comment.

At least 468 employees of two private companies in Thane and Navi Mumbai have also been victims of fake vaccination drives in the past two months.

An FIR registered at Naupada police station, Thane, on June 25 names Mahendra Singh, Shrikant Mane, Sanjay Gupta, Seema Ahuja and Mohammed Kareem Akbar Ali. It was filed on a complaint by Arnav Dutta, a manager with RenewBuy Dot Com, a health and motor insurance company. Dutta, in his complaint, stated that on May 26 this year, the five accused held a vaccination drive at the company’s Thane office in Shreeji Arcade near the Nitin Company. The vaccine, at a cost of 1,000 per head, was administered to 116 employees.

On July 2, Kalpesh Patil, an administration manager of Atomberg Technologies Private Limited filed a complaint with the Turbhe police. The FIR names Dr Manish Tripathi and Mohammed Kareem Akbar Ali among others. According to Patil’s complaint, a camp was conducted on April 23 and 352 employees of the industrial unit were administered vaccines after paying 4.24 lakh. Two of the employees received certificates that named Nanavati Hospital as the vaccine centre, and had the wrong date. None of the other workers received any certificate.“We are still clueless on what we received in the name of vaccine. While the police is investigating the case, we are in touch with the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation and discussing if we can get a first dose again at some authorised vaccination centre. The NMMC would get back to us soon they said,” Patil said.

Vax scam began in April

Kandivli resident Ritu’s Bangude’s 54-year-old mother took her first dose of Covid-19 vaccine on April 3. Though her mother developed fever – a side effect of the vaccine – she did not receive a certificate. Even the CoWin platform showed her as being un-vaccinated. An antibody test revealed that her mother had none. She had received her jab at Shivam Hospital.

Three months on, Bangude, 19, said that other vaccination centres refuse to allow her mother to take a jab after learning that she had received one from Shivam Hospital, as investigation revealed that it was at the centre of the scam. “I have nowhere to go. Neither the BMC not any state officials have contacted us. I am confused and worried a lot,” said Bangude.

Hardik Shah, the chief executive officer of a private firm, lost 5.14 lakh because of the scam, but he said that the loss he feels is far greater. “I don’t trust any vaccination camps now. I don’t know whether the vaccine given now will be real or fake,” the 38-year-old stock broker said.

Shah was approached by Seema Ahuja and Shashikant Mane, claiming that the doctors who ran Shivam Hospital offered to organise a vaccination camp -- all he had to do was to pay money and provide a space. Shah wanted to get his employees at Mansi Share and Stock Advertisers, vaccinated at the earliest, and agreed to the offer. On May 27, he paid 5.14 lakh and the camp was held at Chikoowadi area in Borivli on May 27. They received 100 (forged) vaccine certificates. Shah’s 80-year-old mother was also vaccinated. After the scam came to light Shah’s first reaction was fear. “We did not check with the others if they had side effects like fever. We just thought that we were among those who didn’t have any symptoms at all,” said Shah. “I blamed myself but everyone else assured me it was not my fault. I was cheated too,” he said. BMC officials reached out to Shah and told him to get antibody tests done, and if the result is negative, to receive their first vaccination.

Gopal Sura, 62, one of the committee members of the Hiranandani Heritage society, said that the residents were scared and wondered what was injected in their bodies. Many were worried about possible side effects of what had been administered to them. The police probe eventually revealed that saline water had been injected instead of the vaccine. “Now, we have made a WhatsApp group which includes BMC doctors, police officers investigating the case and the residents, to keep all parties updated with the developments in the case,” said Sura.

Fresh vaccination

The society members claimed that they have been contacted by BMC officials and civic doctors who have asked them to get an antibody test conducted, and if the test shows low antibody count, to approach any government-affiliated centre and get their first shot, as all of them are still shown unvaccinated on CoWin portal. “We are in discussion with BMC to get the (forged) vaccination certificates, issued by the gang to some of our members, cancelled,” Sura, a member of the Hiranandani Heritage society committee, said.

The BMC, however, is waiting for the police investigation to conclude before going ahead with vaccinating all 3,087 victims. “We have given full cooperation to police in the investigation. We are now waiting for their investigation to conclude. In this, we may come to know how many were actually given fake vaccine and how many were given genuine vaccine. After this, we will go ahead with vaccination of those who have been given fake vaccines,” Additional Municipal Commissioner of BMC Suresh Kakani, said.

According to BMC officials, they will also have to write to the central government to nullify vaccination certificates issued on CoWIN portal.

Thane Municipal Commissioner Abhijit Bangar agreed that the victims in the vaccination scam couldn’t be considered as having received their first dose.

“They will have to arrange a workplace camp from an authentic hospital. In case of the two who have got their certificate, which they got after probably the accused procured the login and password of the CoWIN portal, we will have to approach the government to understand what can be done as it is a complex issue. We will soon be issuing guidelines for the housing societies and companies to follow while having any vaccination drive at their place.”

(With inputs by Anamika Gharat, Raina Shine and Mehul Thakkar)

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