Chinese rabies vaccine scandal sparks outrage among authorities and public
A vaccine scandal in China has caused widespread outrage both on social media and in the pages of the country’s government-controlled newspapers, with officials slamming the company responsible and calling for a full investigation.
The controversy kicked off a week ago, when China’s regulator announced that vaccine manufacturer Changsheng Biotechnology had violated standards in the production of a rabies vaccine.
The China Food and Drug Administration said in a statement that during an inspection on Monday, it found Changsheng fabricated production records and product inspection records, and arbitrarily changed process parameters and equipment.
The regulator ordered the company, which is China’s second largest maker of rabies vaccine, to halt production and recall all of its products.
Public concern intensified when authorities revealed on Friday they were fining the same company over substandard production of diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus (DPT) vaccines, something uncovered last November.
The company was found to have sold more than 250,000 ineffective DPT vaccines, administered to children as young as three months old.
In a statement on Sunday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the company had crossed a moral red line and urged severe punishment for the companies and people implicated.
“We will resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that endanger the safety of peoples’ lives,” he said.
“[We will] resolutely punish lawbreakers according to the law, and resolutely and severely criticise dereliction of duty in supervision.”
In 2016 more than 200 people were arrested after it was discovered that tens of millions of dollars worth of expired vaccines had been sold around the country for years.
Netizens react with fear, anger after latest scandal
Mr Li’s comments came after the issue dominated social media and state news outlets all weekend, with parents expressing concern online that they did not know if their children had received defective vaccinations.
“My baby received the rabies vaccine in March. I only took one picture, and didn’t take down the complete batch number,” wrote one user of Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter.
“I’m so panicked now! What should I do?”
Others were critical of the quality of China’s domestically produced vaccines, and the relatively small fine given to Changsheng over its faulty DPT vaccines.
The company was fined about $680,000, but reported $113.5 million in net profits last year, according to the South China Morning Post.
Elsewhere on the internet, angered Chinese netizens appeared to take matters into their own hands. On Monday, the website of a Changsheng subsidiary appeared to be hacked, after its homepage was replaced with a tongue-in-cheek message.
The headline said: “We need to mess with you, otherwise it’s not fair to the kids.” The website is now no longer accessible.
Meanwhile, state media outlets appeared to criticise both the company and the regulator, almost uniformly calling for clear messages from authorities in the wake of the scandal.
China Daily warned the case could become a public health crisis if it was not handled “in a reasonable and transparent manner”.
“The Government needs to act as soon as possible to let the public know it is resolved to address the issue and will punish any wrongdoers without mercy,” it said.
The Global Times tabloid pointed out in an editorial that an article making numerous allegations about the company and counterfeit vaccines was “widely circulated” on social media after the news became public, but went unchallenged due to a lack of information from officials.
That article has since been removed by censors, but the paper called on the Government to make the public “feel at ease and assured” and be open and transparent about the situation.
‘Made in China makes us terrified’
China has been rocked by a number of food and drug safety incidents over the last decade, most famously the 2008 tainted baby formula scandal that led to the deaths of six children from kidney stone complications, and the hospitalisation of about 54,000 others.
Some on Weibo compared the vaccine scandal to the earlier milk powder incident.
“Milk powder is not safe to eat, vaccines are not safe to receive, childcare is not safe to go to. Made in China makes us terrified,” wrote one user.
Zhao Lianhai, the founder of Kidney Stones Babies, a movement of parents seeking restitution following the baby formula scandal, told the ABC there had been groups of parents in China concerned about substandard vaccines for many years.
Mr Zhao was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment for “disturbing social order” in 2010.
“Only one or two parents actively seek dignity for their children. More parents shrink back in the face of intimidation. This is the reality of today’s China,” he said.
“If the institutional problems are not to be changed, the disasters are sure to continue. The problem of this country is the state’s system.
“People have been brainwashed for so many years, they have no such thoughts of their own rights. Even when facing their own loved ones and children being injured or killed, they will choose to tolerate it.”