China in grip of yet another vaccine scandal

Just a few days after Chinese vaccine producer Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology admitted falsifying records for a rabies shot, another of its products has been deemed substandard.

Last week, the company came under fierce scrutiny after faking production data for 113,000 lots of the childhood rabies vaccine, and was ordered by the Chinese authorities to cease production and recall all supplies of the shot – sparking a furore on social media, widespread public anger and a dramatic fall in its share price and the threat of being de-listed.

In the latest development, tests on another childhood vaccine designed to protect against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough) has been deemed substandard by local authorities in Jilin province.  

It’s estimated that at least 250,000 doses of the DTaP vaccine had already been distributed to facilities in Shandong and – while there are no reports of injury from that or the rabies product – parents are furious that once again the safety of important childhood products has been called into question.

In 2016 it was discovered that around 2m non-essential vaccines for diseases like chickenpox and hepatitis A worth an estimated $90m – which were out of date and stored in chaotic conditions – had been administered to patients in Shandong. A similar case occurred the year earlier in Henan, with hundreds of children reported to have fallen ill as a result of receiving the shots, and of course those incidents followed the massive scandals associated with adulterated heparin products and milk contaminated with melamine in 2008, which claimed multiple lives in each case.

Fifteen people, including the chairwoman of Changsheng Bio Gao Junfang, have been detained in connection with the scandal, according to local news reports. The Anti-Corruption digest also reports that the firm has been involved in several cases of bribery in recent years, citing China Judgment Online, a web-accessible database that discloses court rulings.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a US-based think tank on foreign policy, said the latest case “has sparked both intense criticism of the Chinese government’s ability to regulate the space at home, and concerns about China’s recent push to market pharmaceuticals abroad”.

The Chinese government has reportedly been trying to calm public anger over the incident, suggesting the vaccines are not harmful, and has been accused of censoring criticism on social media including the widely-used Weibo platform.

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