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President Xi calls China vaccine scandal ‘hideous, appalling’, orders probe

Allegations that millions of infants may have been administered with allegedly fake vaccines produced by Changchun Changsheng, one of China’s largest pharma firms, have hit the country’s healthcare system’s image.

world Updated: Jul 24, 2018 12:44 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times, Beijing
Presiden Xi Jinping,Fake vaccine,DPT vaccines
A child cries while receiving a vaccine shot at a health station in Hefei in central China's Anhui province recently. (AP File)

Chinese president Xi Jinping has ordered a “thorough investigation” into widespread concerns that hundreds of thousands of infants might have been administered fake vaccines produced by one of the country’s largest pharmaceutical firms.

According to official news agency Xinhua, Xi termed “the illegal production of vaccines by Changchun Changsheng Life Sciences Limited as hideous and appalling”.

Reports on the developing scandal have revealed that the company may have supplied ineffective DPT (diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus) vaccines that were given to babies as young as three months old, and forging data for anti-rabies vaccines.

Northeast China’s Jilin provincial food and drug supervision authority has revoked Changchun Changsheng’s drug GMP certificate for rabies vaccines, halted their production and sale, and suspended the approval of all products brought out by the company.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that the firm’s chairwoman, Gao Junfang, and four senior executives were taken away by Changchun police for questioning. “Once a darling of Chinese fund managers, Changsheng Bio-tech has lost nearly half of its share value since the State Drug Administration uncovered its data forgery in an unannounced inspection a week ago, and is now in danger of being delisted,” the newspaper reported.

Despite these steps, China’s top leadership has had to issue stern statements to address public concerns on the scandal. Even Xi, who is currently on a tour of Africa and will be in South Africa to attend the BRICS summit on Wednesday, spoke on the matter.

It is rare for the Chinese president to comment on a domestic issue while abroad, and this reflects the government’s urgency to control the damage – especially on the credibility of China’s health system – caused by the latest medical scandal.

The Xinhua report quoted Xi as saying that “relevant departments and local authorities should pay close attention and immediately probe the case to find the truth”. The president also added that the investigation be thorough, the punishment severe, and the case’s progress be publicised on time to address public concern.

Xi stressed that it was the bounden responsibility of Communist Party of China committees and departments at all levels to ensure drug safety. “A firm determination should be mustered to improve the country’s vaccine management system, and utmost efforts should be made to protect the people’s interests, social security and stability,” he said.

Chinese premier Li Keqiang had earlier called for severe punishment against those involved, stating that the case had crossed a moral line.

The scandal first emerged a week ago, when it was found that the company’s anti-rabies vaccines were faulty and didn’t meet immunity standards. Although there have been no reports of the said vaccines causing any harm, the case triggered massive outrage from hundreds of thousands of people on the social media after investigations revealed that the listed company – Changsheng Biotechnology Co – was linked to a substandard DPT vaccine for infants.

“The vaccine case has crossed a moral line, and the nation deserves a clear explanation,” Li was quoted as saying in a statement.

Details of the fake DPT vaccines sold by the same company last November emerged during investigations into the rabies vaccine, indicating that the matter was hushed up.

“Changsheng Biotech Co, parent company of Changchun Changsheng Bio-tech Co, revealed in November that 252,600 doses of the substandard ADPT vaccine that couldn’t meet the standard of immunity results were all sold to Shandong province and have been recalled,” a state media report said on Monday.

On July 20, the Jilin Provincial Drug Administration announced a penalty regarding Changchun Changsheng Bio-tech Co’s substandard DPT vaccine. The company was fined 2.58 million yuan ($282,000), and assets worth 859,000 yuan from the sales of the vaccine were confiscated.

“Several state media groups called for severe punishment and stricter supervision of vaccines. People’s Daily released a commentary on July 22 saying that drug-makers should stick to moral principles and make life their priority rather than profits,” news agency Reuters said in a report.

“News about the vaccine scandal involving Changchun Changsheng is flooding the Internet with public anger and panic. Vaccines directly concern the health of children and are related to life. Every item of negative news in this area attracts the attention of all society. Supervising and regulating the safe production of vaccines can be argued as a test of a modern country’s governance,” tabloid Global Times said in an editorial.

The scandal remains among the top-searched topics on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

“Indians make real medicine and Chinese make fake medicines. The sale of Indian medicines is restricted while Chinese counterfeit drug makers are making a fortune,” wrote one Weibo user.

“As a mother, I am extremely angry. I want to know how to stop the fake vaccine from harming my child,” wrote another.

First Published: Jul 24, 2018 12:43 IST