Reports showing that a Chinese company sold and shipped over 250,000 unsafe doses of an infant vaccine have created massive public outrage, while the communist authorities act to censor information and discussion about the scandal.
The company in question, Changsheng Bio-Technology, produces DTap, a combination vaccine for young children that develops immunity against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus.
As early as October 2017, Changsheng (which literally means “long life” in Chinese) was discovered to be producing unsafe vaccines after a sample test conducted by China’s National Institutes for Food and Drug Control (NIFDC).
After the NIFDC confirmed the existence of 252,600 doses of substandard DTap, it had ordered local Food and Drug Administrations (FDA) in the province of Shandong to start recalling them, while paying attention to public opinion — that is, covering up the incident.
But the instructions were not followed until November 2017. By then, nearly all of the substandard vaccines had been sold and used to inoculate over 200,000 children.
The cover-up was brought to light on July 15, when the Chinese FDA ordered its branch in Jilin Province, Northeast China (where Changsheng Bio-Technology is based), to look into the company’s falsification of testing data for a rabies vaccine.
Days later, on July 19, the Jilin Province FDA charged Changsheng with producing unsafe vaccines. It also admitted that investigations had begun in 2017 and that Changsheng had sold over 250,000 of its vaccines to the Shandong Province Disease Prevention and Control Center, leaving just 186 doses left in its inventory.
Once revealed, the scandal caused widespread anger and discussion throughout China, while spurring an influx of mainlanders going to Hong Kong to get their children vaccinated.
While Chinese leaders, such as President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, condemned the scandal and demanded that those responsible be brought to justice, the government has heavily censored the topic on social media. Many Internet users have taken their discussions to the Weibo social media account of the U.S. Embassy, where the Chinese authorities are less likely to intervene.
This is not the first time that China has experienced a nationwide scandal involving vaccines. In 2016, a medical school graduate from Shandong Province was found to have sold tainted vaccines across 24 provinces over a period of five years.
In 2006 and 2007, tainted vaccines affected up to 1 million children in Shanxi Province, many of whom died or contracted serious diseases.
Chen Tao’an, a former director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Information Department in Shanxi, gave an interview with Radio Free Asia in which he described the collusion between pharmaceutical companies and local Communist Party officials. According to Chen, safety regulations are often ignored because of the profits involved.
Chen said: “The market and its regulation are not independent. [Regulators] can make money in the market, so they all engage in the business. The government officials are all involved, so how can there be anyone who supervises?”