China detains dozens after sales of poorly stored vaccines

World Today

Police in eastern China have detained 37 people implicated in a scandal involving the selling of poorly refrigerated and probably ineffective vaccines, state media reported Wednesday.

Chinese premier Li Keqiang has urged a thorough investigation after a scandal that has shed light on illegal sales of medical vaccines. Since 2011, $88 million worth of “problematic vaccines” were being sold in 24 provincial-level regions.

The scandal re-enforces longstanding concerns among the public over the safety of food and medicine. Nine pharmaceutical wholesalers believed to have sold the vaccines are being investigated.

“There is zero tolerance to malfeasance-related actions,” Li said.

No more side effects have been detected among the patients vaccinated with suspected illegal vaccines, an official at the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) said Wednesday.

According to Xiong Huang, spokesperson of the NHFPC, the observation was based on the analyses made by medical experts with a state-level database on vaccines.

Earlier this month, the administration publicly published a list of 107 suspects allegedly supplying the vaccines and 193 suspects buying those vaccines to sell it for profit. Thirteen drug production companies in Hebei, Hunan, Shanxi, and Shandong provinces are also suspected of being involved in the supply and sales chain.

The vaccines included those for hepatitis B, rabies, mumps, and Japanese encephalitis.

The China office of the World Health Organization said it stood ready to provide support to Chinese health authorities.

It said that vaccines need to be stored and managed properly or they can become less effective and that children risked not being protected from the disease against which they were supposed to have been vaccinated.

“It is important to note, however, that improperly stored or expired vaccine seldom if ever causes a toxic reaction — therefore there is likely to be minimal safety risk in this particular situation,” the WHO said.

One of the two women initially detained, a 47-year-old doctor with the surname Pang, is alleged to have sold about 2 million doses of suspect vaccines, according to state media reports. Shandong’s provincial food and drug safety administration has publicized a list of buyers and sellers.

Police in Shandong province detained a total of 37 suspects implicated in the vaccine scandal, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Wednesday. It gave no details on the suspects, and police who answered calls in Shandong said they had no information on the case.

Amid widespread counterfeiting and lax enforcement, China has struggled to ensure food and drug safety. Past scandals have involved phony infant formula discovered to be nothing but starch and bogus vaccines containing only saline solution.

The World Health Organization said it is waiting for the investigation results and is ready to provide support to national health authorities. WHO also encourages parents to vaccinate their children to continue protecting them from preventable diseases via China’s routine immunization programs.

Story compiled from CCTV, Xinhua, and Associated Press reports.