New research carried out by city data scientist, Dr. Andrea Baronchelli, and colleagues, into the dark web marketplace (DWM) trade in products related to COVID-19, has revealed the need for the continuous monitoring of dark web marketplaces (DWMs), especially in light of the current shortage and availability of coronavirus vaccines.

COVID-19 Vaccine Shortage Warrants Investigation of Dark Web Marketplaces
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COVID-19 Vaccine Shortage Prevails in Different Regions of the World

Reports of COVID-19 vaccine shortages have surfaced in different countries this week. New York Times notes that the shortages in the European Union is predicted to snowball into a global crisis, which is apparent in shortages in different countries all over the world. A new study entitled "Dark Web Marketplaces (DWMs) and COVID-19: before the vaccine" reveals that vaccine shortages need continuous monitoring of the dark web marketplace in all products being traded that pertain to COVID-19.

Headed by City data scientist from City University London, Dr. Andrea Baronchelli, the study was published in the EPJ Data Science journal. The study on DWMs had lasted a span of about 10 months (January 1-November 16, 2020) and has looked into about 851,199 listings in the Dark web marketplaces.

Baronchelli and her colleagues had identified that there were 788 listings that directly pertain to COVID-19 products. Moreover, they monitored the trade and evolution of products under this category, which includes medicines such as hydroxychloroquine, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), as well as different types of medical offers that amount to medical fraud.

Experts Warn DWMs Like DarkBay/DBay Should Be Monitored for Prevalence of Illegal COVID-19 Vaccine Trade

The researchers also monitored the trends and interest level of these products over time in different web pages such as Twitter and Wikipedia. The authors of the study had especially highlighted the prevalence of an important dark web player called  DarkBay/DBay.

In an intereview with News Medical Life Sciences, Baronchelli said, "In our dataset, DarkBay/DBay is featured prominently among DWMs offering COVID-19 specific listings. Ranking in the top 100 sites in the entire dark web, DarkBay/DBay offers more listings categories than other DWMs."

"It was also frequently accessible during the period of time monitored during this research, with an uptime of 80%, higher from the 77% uptime of Empire, the largest global DWM at the time of writing", she added.

Read more: Coronavirus Mutations from the UK and South Africa Raises Questions About the Newly Developed Vaccines

DWMs such as DarkBay/DBay which comprises the most listings may be likely to hold illegal listings such as COVID-19 Vaccines, which contributes at a great rate the shortage of vaccines all over the world.

The authors highlighted in their recommendations that there is an urgent need to continually monitor and investigate the prevalence of these DWMs, especially that the shortages of the COVID-19 vaccines have not subsided in different regions of the world.

Dark Web Market Place May Also Be a Source of Misinformation, Exposes People to Health Risks

The researchers also added that aside from the DWMs being a source of illegal vaccine trade, it can also be a breeding ground for misinformation with the intent mainly of making sales.

Thus, these DWMs need to be monitored also because of the various false information circulating all over these marketplaces which may pose a serious health risk to many citizens.

In line with this, Baronchelli said, "Uninformed citizens exposed to waves of misinformation, such as the ones related to hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, and azithromycin, may be tempted to shop on DWMs thus exposing themselves to serious health risks.

"Moreover, the availability of regulated products currently in shortage in the traditional economy undermines anti-price gouging regulations and regulated businesses which sell the same products.", she added.

Currently, health officials and experts are on the lookout for illegal trade and misinformation not only in known DWMs but also all over the web and in many social media websites. Continuous monitoring and proactive prevention of unwarranted action are important to ensure that measures to curb the pandemic will be made more efficient.

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Written by Nikki D

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