Beijing: The exposure of an extensive criminal ring responsible for the proliferation of suspect vaccines through the healthcare system across dozens of provinces has sparked widespread anger and alarm in China, prompting Premier Li Keqiang to call for a thorough investigation.
China’s Food and Drug Administration on Monday ordered local authorities across the nation to help trace the more than 2 million problem vaccine doses, prompting public outcry from anxious parents in a country where trust in China’s public health regulators is threadbare due to frequent food-safety scandals, including in 2008 when melamine was found added to infant formula, causing six infant deaths and at least 300,000 to fall ill.
Pang’s daughter helped run the criminal vaccine network.
Pang’s daughter helped run the criminal vaccine network. Photo: supplied
Authorities said they were searching for some 300 suspects across the country following the arrest of a 47-year-old former doctor and her daughter in eastern Shandong province who masterminded the vaccine network.
The ring had illegally sold 25 kinds of vaccines worth an estimated 570 million yuan ($115 million) to its network across 24 provinces and major cities, including Beijing, Guangdong and Chongqing since at least 2010.
The suspect vaccines, including for rabies, polio, hepatitis B and the flu, were obtained from licensed sources but were stored without appropriate temperature control to prevent spoilage.
A widely shared screenshot of a television news report by state broadcaster CCTV listing the 24 provinces and major …
A widely shared screenshot of a television news report by state broadcaster CCTV listing the 24 provinces and major cities affected by the vaccine scandal. Photo: CCTV
The World Health Organisation’s China office said in a statement that while it awaited the results of the authorities’ investigation, it noted improperly stored or expired vaccines seldom posed a health risk. “The risk to children is lack of protection from the disease for which the vaccine was intended,” the statement said.
While the scandal was first reported by Shanghai-based online news site The Paper on Friday, public alarm grew steadily over the weekend as widely shared social media posts highlighting the extent of the vaccine network fanned fears online.
Among the most widely shared posts was one accompanied by a screenshot of a television news report by state broadcaster CCTV which listed all 24 provinces and cities affected by the suspect vaccines.
“If every province doesn’t investigate thoroughly, no one can guarantee the future health of their child!” the post read, which also condemned commercial news sites for prioritising news on celebrity weddings and sports results. “Which hospitals have these vaccines gone to, which children have these been administered to?”
Also going viral was a detailed report published in 2013 by respected magazine Caixin which documented a string of young children who appeared to contract serious illnesses and disabilities shortly after being vaccinated. Past scandals have also uncovered bogus vaccines containing only saline solution.
“On the surface, the vaccine case shows a disregard for the law and the willingness to kill for money,” an online post from a young father in Beijing said. “On a deeper level, it shows society at rock bottom and a complete lack of conscience.”
Wang Yuedan, a deputy professor at Peking University’s immunology department, told The Paper that the vaccine rort was “equal to killing people”, with recipients of ineffective vaccines prone to contracting deadly diseases they thought they were immune to.