A Chicago pharmacist was arrested Tuesday morning on federal charges of stealing and selling authentic Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 vaccination cards, federal investigators announced on Tuesday.
Tangtang Zhao, 34, is accused of selling 125 cards on eBay for $10 each during March and April 2021, according to court records. Investigators believe Zhao stole the cards from his employer: a pharmacy authorized to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.
In total, the indictment states Zhao made more than $1,270.
Zhao did not respond to NBC 5 Responds’ request for comment. Zhao appeared in court Tuesday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan in the Northern District Court of Illinois. He pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.
Investigators tell NBC 5 Responds Zhao’s arrest could be the first of many.
“The arrest today that we’re seeing is the first of its kind in the Chicago area,” said Special Agent Siobhan Johnson. “Now, the first domino has fallen, and we’re going to be gaining momentum. Investigations will be continuing. So hopefully, we’ll be seeing additional prosecutions in the near future.”
Creating or having a vaccination card that an authorized source did not officially give to you is a federal crime, Siobhan said, in part because the CDC is a federal agency, and the card includes a CDC seal.
Agents believe Zhao stole the CDC vaccination cards from the pharmacy he worked at, Siobhan said.
The Special Grand Jury indictment -- dated Aug. 12, 2021 -- does not name the pharmacy Zhao works for or where he stole the vaccination cards. Prosecutors only referred to the pharmacy as “Company 1”, a retail store and pharmacy with locations nationwide and that is authorized to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.
The National Provider Index and other employment records indicate Zhao's license was recently connected to a Walgreens pharmacy on South Commercial Ave in Chicago.
A spokesperson for Walgreens confirmed Zhao’s employment at that location through late April, which coincides with the timeline that investigators laid out in the criminal indictment.
In addition, the pharmacy chain said it has procedures in place preventing the “misuse” of CDC COVID-19 vaccination cards.
“Our pharmacies receive a limited number of CDC dose cards as part of the CDC immunization supply kits shipped to our locations that administer COVID-19 vaccines and we have procedures in place to prevent their misuse,” said Phil Caruso with Walgreens. “We continue to cooperate with the government’s investigation.”
A spokesperson for eBay would not comment specifically on this case of vaccination cards sold on its platform, but said in part, “We are taking significant measures to block or quickly remove items on our marketplace that make false health claims including vaccine ID cards or similar items that could be used to falsely represent a person has received the vaccine.”
The indictment alleges Zhao sold bundles of vaccination cards to 11 people, each identified by their initials. The FBI said it “remains to be seen” whether those individuals will face criminal charges for purchasing the vaccination cards.
Despite the relatively small number, Special Agent Johnson said the bureau views those 125 cards sold illegally as a significant threat to public health.
“If you have 125 unvaccinated individuals out and about, mixing with people who are vulnerable… it could have a huge impact with this new Delta variant,” Johnson told NBC 5 Responds.
A search of Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation licenses for pharmacists states Zhao has never been disciplined and received his license in 2018.
Special Agent in Charge Emmerson Buie Jr. of the FBI’s Chicago Field Office called Zhao’s actions an “insult to those who are doing their part in the fight to stop COVID-19.”
“Knowingly selling COVID vaccination cards to unvaccinated individuals puts millions of Americans at risk of serious injury or death,” Buie Jr. said in a Department of Justice news release on the arrest.
The DOJ news release states that the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services is also investigating the incident.
Zhao faces 12 counts of theft of government property. If convicted, prosecutors said in court he could face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison per count, a fine of $250,000, and three years of supervised release.
Check back for updates on this developing story.