China: outcry over sale of 250,000 faulty vaccines prompts investigation

Chinese social media posts expressed anger with hashtag #Changsheng vaccine case# being viewed 470 million times by Monday

Chinese premier Li Keqiang has called for an immediate investigation into the sale of 250,000 faulty rabies vaccines that he said had crossed a moral line, while urging severe punishment for the companies and people implicated.

Outrage swept Chinese social media on Monday as regulators and officials tried to contain fallout over revelations that one of the country’s largest vaccine makers had been giving children defective vaccines.

Regulators last week ordered the Jilin-based Changsheng Biotechnology to stop production of a rabies vaccine, after investigators found fabricated production and inspection records during an inspection that was prompted by a tip off. Changsheng said in a stock market filing later in the week that authorities were punishing the company over a “substandard” DPT vaccine for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus.

On Sunday, China’s food and drug administration said it was investigating Changsheng, whose name means “long life,” and that all production had been halted. The company issued a statement expressing its “deepest apology.”

There have been no reports of injuries or side effects from the vaccines and Chinese officials and state media have released statements promising accountability.

But a lack of public trust continues, as parents remember the government’s handling of previous public health crises. In 2008, six children died and 300,000 fell ill after drinking milk powder tainted with melamine, a case officials initially had covered up.

“I just want to express a mother’s anxiety ... the vaccine case is like pouring poison into the well,” one commentator wrote on Weibo. “I am truly terrified.” Another wrote, “People ask why I don’t have children. It’s because I don’t want my child to drink tainted milk powder, to be injected with fake vaccines ... I don’t want to see what happened to our generation to happen to the next.”

Censors, which at first deleted critical Wechat articles, seemed to allow the deluge of public discussion. The hashtag #Changsheng vaccine case# had been viewed over 470 million times as of Monday.

Online commentators also posted on the US embassy’s Weibo page. “Please ask the ambassador to help us call for human rights and give a child a lifeline. The fake vaccines have been uncovered, poisoned milk powder overflows. Save the children,” one said.

Another said: “Mr. Ambassador, tell Mr. Trump, liberate China. We don’t want our children and grandchildren to be persecuted by their vaccines.”

Chinese premier Li Keqiang condemned the sale of the faulty vaccines: “We will resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that endanger the safety of people’s lives, resolutely punish lawbreakers according to the law, and resolutely and severely criticise dereliction of duty in supervision,” Li said.

It is unclear how many children received Changsheng vaccines. Parents are required to follow a vaccine schedule for their children.

Chinese state media reported that 250,000 doses of the DPT vaccine in question had been sold to the province of Shandong. The company recalled 186 doses that were still in stock at the regional disease centre. Changsheng said other regional disease control agencies have suspended use of some of the company’s other vaccines.

Changsheng is owned by Chinese billionaire Gao Junfang. Last week shares for Changsheng, listed in Shenzhen, dropped 10%, the maximum amount they are allowed to fall. On Monday, trading of its shares was temporarily halted. The company has lost 40% of its share value since last week, when the case has become public.

The Changsheng case further erodes public trust in Chinese-made drugs, which the government has been trying to promote. In 2016 police in Shandong province found $90 m in vaccines had been improperly stored and sold throughout the country. Last week, a heart drug made by Zhejiang Huaihai Pharmaceutical was recalled after regulators found an impurity in it linked to cancer.

“Vaccines directly concern the health of children and are related to life,” state-run Global Times said in an editorial. “Every negative news item in this area will make all of society look at it.”

Additional reporting by Wang Xueying


Lily Kuo

The GuardianTramp

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