ROME—Like many Italians, “Giacomo” was sure he had contracted COVID-19 in late February. He had a fever, his sense of smell was affected, and he was short of breath. But as the crisis hit its apex, testing across the country was provided only for people who needed hospitalization. The rest were told to quarantine until their symptoms had been gone for two weeks.
Giacomo wanted to be sure he was truly immune before returning to work on Monday as a barista at a busy counter in central Rome, but he didn’t qualify for blanket testing by the health ministry because he had not called the coronavirus helpline when he was exhibiting symptoms. He’d heard that a local pusher, who mostly sells marijuana and hash, could get some tests with a catch—he had to give his personal data, including his tax identification number. Giacomo bought one for just under $215, which included enough material to run six tests from Giacomo’s self-extracted sample. Three came back positive, three came back negative.
Giacomo says he still doesn’t know if he has the antibodies. He is one of hundreds of Italians who have bought these rogue antibody testing kits either through the internet or from local recreational drug dealers who are acting as foot soldiers for the mob, which continues to cash in on the pandemic.
The reason we can’t use Giacomo’s real name is because he is now a government witness against the Neapolitan Camorra, who he says have “been in touch” since he bought the test, which prompted him to contact the authorities.
“I knew the test was coming from a criminal source,” he told The Daily Beast. “But there seemed to be no other way to get one and I just wanted to be sure I was immune so I knew how careful I would need to be at work.”
Italy’s financial police in the northern city of Turin busted a similar antibody testing ring allegedly tied to the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria. A spokesperson with the financial police told The Daily Beast that a 30-year-old man was selling the tests, which he advertised as made in Wuhan, China, on a website, since taken down, that also sold masks and gloves to combat the spread of the virus.
To get the test, the potential buyer had to call a number and give personal data for “eventual contact tracing.” And this is where the scam starts to get really interesting. Police say it’s a pathway to extortion and identity theft.
With authorized testing, which is sporadically available in Italy with the right connections and about $40, Italians must register their personal data and become part of a contact tracing database. With the mob version, they are expected to give the same details and more, including their tax ID, so the syndicate selling the tests can keep a database of its own.
In Italy, having antibodies also comes with a stigma, since nobody is sure how long you might be a virus carrier, and the prospect of immunity may be ephemeral. So, having survived COVID-19 is not something you want to brag about. A restaurant owner in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood told The Daily Beast that he had in fact recovered from the virus, but “please don’t tell anyone since that would be bad for business.”
There already are several complaints to police about people who had the virus being asked to pay up or be “outed” as potential carriers, and it didn’t help that some recent studies show people who survived COVID-19 were still contagious weeks later.
Italy’s various organized crime syndicates have shown their entrepreneurial spirit during the crisis by offering short-term loans to businesses that risked closing and even handing out food and other supplies for “favors” to be returned at a later date. And we've seen similar activities by the cartels in Latin America: killers pretending to be saviors.
Last week in Palermo, 91 people were arrested for mafia collusion for trying to cash in on the COVID crisis. Among the charges were loan sharking, money laundering, and infiltration of the personal protective equipment industry selling supplies to companies before the reopening. They were also pedaling fake sanitization certificates that businesses must display as part of the reopening to ensure customers that their shops have been thoroughly cleansed of the virus.
“The Mafia will always find ways to infiltrate and exploit situations that put pressure on the state,” Nicola Gratteri, an anti-mafia investigator, told The Daily Beast. “The COVID crisis is like any other natural disaster, and the mafia is not going to miss any opportunity to cash in on it.”
The United States is as vulnerable as any country, perhaps more so with a death toll now topping 92,000.
What are billed as COVID antibody tests are easily available online with no approval whatsoever by the Food and Drug Administration—and even those that have been approved have failed frequently to offer valid results.
The DarkNet—that unindexed part of the World Wide Web where literally everything is for sale—is brimming with COVID-19 antibody tests that have not been medically validated. Many of the tests available online suggest they are made in China and run for between $40 and $250 a piece.
Fake tests often equal fake results. That means if users test positive for antibodies but don’t really have them, they could put themselves and others at risk with their false sense of security. The same goes for the at-home swabs testing for the infection, which could deliver a false negative, even to those who have symptoms, thereby giving them the green light to interact with others.
Speaking of viral and antibody tests, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, told a White House briefing last week, “If you see them on the internet, do not buy them until we can give you a test that’s reliable for all Americans.”
Such tests are not yet widely available, unfortunately, from any government. But where the state fails, organized crime is always ready to step in.