COVID had left Bank of Baroda’s Malad branch manager Pramod Kumar on oxygen support for nine days last year. Seven other colleagues had also got infected, leaving them wary of handling customers. So in April, when a long-term account holder, Mahendra Pratap Singh, offered vaccination, Kumar jumped at the opportunity.
The vaccination camp was planned at Shivam Hospital for staffers and their family, around 40 people in all, for Rs 800 per shot. At the last minute, the venue for the second dose was shifted to the bank branch office on May 25. Singh and two others arrived that day carrying an ice-box with vials. While they noted down names and Aadhaar numbers of the beneficiaries, no one mentioned Co-WIN. The bank employees noticed this, but didn’t think much about it.
The first doubts arose when the 40 received neither their final vaccination certificate nor did their second dose reflect on Co-WIN. Twenty days later, a bank employee noticed a WhatsApp forward about an arrest in a fake vaccination scam; the man was Singh.
Says a shaken Kumar, “When there is good faith, no one suspects anything. This man worked in health circles, had a bank account with us since 2013. We trusted him.”
The employees of Bank of Baroda are believed to have been among the first victims of Singh and his accomplices, who are alleged to have held at least nine drives with fake vaccines across Mumbai. So far, police have registered 10 FIRs, counted 2,680 ‘victims’, many of whom were injected actually with saline water, and put the gang’s earnings at over Rs 26 lakh.
At the heart of it was 39-year-old Singh.
A Class 10 dropout, Singh’s link to medicine is the 15 years he spent as a clerk with the Malad Medical Association, giving him access to 2,000 doctor members, pharmaceutical agents and marketing guys. The scam began soon after the association fired Singh in April for misusing its name and premises.
Next came in Shivam Hospital owners Dr Shivraj Pataria and wife Neeta, whom Singh knew well. One of the hospitals enlisted as a private vaccination centre with BMC, Shivam Hospital got 23,350 doses from the government for Rs 150 each and used 22,826. While BMC Assistant Commissioner Sanjay Kurhade says they took back the leftover doses, Mumbai Police believes the hospital kept the vials and these are what were used in the drives — in the early days, at least some may have had genuine vaccines.
The Patarias, in turn, are alleged to have roped in Manish Tripathi, who runs Knowledge Centre for Educational Planning Pvt Ltd, a private coaching institute for medical and engineering students, from a rented space in Shivam Hospital. Tripathi allegedly enlisted three of his students for transporting and administering vaccines — Karim Akbar Ali, Roshni Patel and Ajit Benwasi, aged between 19-20.
Singh’s friend Sanjay Gupta, an event manager, reportedly helped arrange the drives, schedule the times and figure out logistics. In May, Seema Ahuja and Shrikant Mane, who had lost jobs due to the pandemic at travel agency Cox & Kings, reportedly joined Gupta and Singh.
Also an accused is Rajesh Pandey, Singh’s friend and a marketing executive with Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, who is alleged to have helped the accused spread the impression that the hospital was behind the vaccination drives.
The first vaccination drive was conducted by Singh and others on April 23 — at a time when such camps for private groups were not allowed. The 10th was held on June 6.
As per Central government norms, private hospitals must sign an MoU with a society or corporate office where a camp is to be held and inform the local civic body. In all the drives being probed, neither was an MoU signed nor BMC alerted.
The duped housing societies and private organisations admit ignorance of norms plus eagerness to get vaccines early.
It was ultimately a series of tweets by a resident of the upscale Hiranandani Heritage Society in Kandivali, where a fake drive was held on May 30, that first drew the attention of the authorities.
When the society residents started demanding their vaccination certificates, the gang tried to gain access through various hospital IDs on Co-WIN. Data entry operators Chandan Singh and Nitin Mode, who had access to these IDs at Lifeline Hospital, allegedly came in then. They are believed to have also roped in Gudiya Yadav, who worked at NESCO Covid jumbo centre and also had access to a login ID on Co-WIN.
But, they made a mistake. They entered the wrong date and time for the vaccination drive. Since different logins were used, the hospital’s name on vaccination certificates was different for different beneficiaries. This is what finally took the lid off the scam.
Thirteen of the 20 accused have been arrested. While no adverse reaction has been reported, police have pressed attempt to culpable homicide charges. On Thursday, Joint Commissioner, Law and Order, Vishwas Nangre Patil confirmed that beneficiaries got saline water in place of vaccines.
Health Minister Rajesh Tope says they are thinking of getting an antibody test done on all the 2,680 duped beneficiaries. After that, he says, “We will plan proper vaccination and register them on Co-WIN after discussing the matter with the Central government.”
Ashish Shetty, the West Zone manager of insurance firm RenewBuy.com, which conducted a drive through Singh, says he underwent an antibody test out of curiosity earlier this week. “The test showed good antibody levels. But I don’t know if I caught Covid and was asymptomatic or if the vaccine I got was genuine.”
And that is what worries the 2,680. What next?