Chinese police have arrested more than 80 people for allegedly making counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines, as China races to inoculate millions before the Lunar New Year holiday.

According to Xinhua news agency, the gang had been putting saline water into vials and selling them as COVID-19 vaccines in an operation that had been running since last September. 

The police operation was carried out at several locations across Beijing and multiple cities in the eastern provinces of Jiangsu and Shandong, seizing “more than 3,000 fake COVID-19 vaccines on the spot,” Xinhua said. 

The suspects may have intended to send the vaccines abroad, the government-backed Global Times newspaper reported, citing a source close to a major Chinese vaccine producer.

This comes as China is racing to develop homegrown jabs as they aim to vaccinate 50 million people before the start of the Lunar New Year in mid-February as hundreds of millions of people will be traveling for the festivity.

State-owned firm Sinopharm’s vaccine was approved by Chinese regulators for general use in December.

Since the virus emerged in 2019 in China, authorities have charged thousands of people with crimes related to the pandemic, including spreading “rumors”, concealing an infection, and not complying with guidelines.

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