Vaccine Scandal Shows Public Distrust, System’s Flaws

The Wall Street Journal’s Fanfan Wang and Laurie Burkitt report that an ongoing government investigation into the illegal sale of improperly stored vaccines has revealed flaws in China’s vaccine distribution system, with close ties between local governments and vaccine vendors hindering effective supervision:

Li Guoqing, who is in charge of drug supervision at the regulator, said investigators uncovered long-standing collusion, with some government clinics selling expired or near-expired on the cheap to vendors, who then resold them to other government clinics, especially in remote areas with weak oversight.

[…] Local governments sometimes have direct stakes in such vaccine distributors. For example, the Hebei province’s Centers for Disease Control branch is the sole investor in one of the distributors now under investigation, Hebei Weifang Biological Production Supply Center, according to corporate records. An official answering the phone at the Hebei CDC’ said she doesn’t know how Weifang’s vaccines are administered in the province. Calls to Weifang Biological went unanswered.

Professor Zhou Zijun from Peking University’s School of says that although the drug regulator strictly monitors vaccine manufacturers, supervision of how vaccines are distributed is weak.

[…] For local government clinics, which look to the optional vaccines to make money, there are incentives to buy them from low-cost channels, say Chinese health experts. [Source]

A former executive of Hebei Weifang Biological Products Supply Centre was also a major stakeholder in a separate pharmaceutical company involved in a deadly vaccine scandal back in 2010. China’s top prosecutor has pledged to thoroughly investigate the current case and bring all those involved to justice. More than a hundred arrests have already been reported in connection with the scandal.

At South China Morning Post, editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei writes that the scandal has undermined the government’s credibility in the eyes of the Chinese public.

As the official China Daily commented: “The authorities have nobody but themselves to blame for the disbelief and mistrust they face.”

The Xinhua report said the arrests were made in April 2015 and the case was then transferred to the supervision of the Ministry of Public Security and the China Food and Drug Administration in Beijing. This suggested the central government regulators had known about the seriousness of the case for nearly one year.

[…] It was only after Wednesday when state media reported that Li had ordered a thorough probe and a timely response to the public concerns that the regulators shifted into high gear, holding their first press conference on Thursday, nearly a week after the reports began to cause panic among the public.

[…] They tried to reassure the public by echoing the WHO’s statement that the health risk was minimal. But it was too little, too late given the public’s anger and distrust. They have had too many experiences of officials attempting cover-ups or downplaying that are a matter of life and death – such as the melamine-spiked milk powder scandal and the Sars epidemic. [Source]

Authorities recently issued a censorship directive ordering journalists and editors not to hype a report on the scandal published by state-owned news website The Paper. Meanwhile, Ben Westcott at South China Morning Post reports that state media Global Times has openly criticized the Chinese government for restricting the press in light of the vaccine incident:

Chinese government mouthpiece, the Global Times – known for its strident pro-China views – wrote in an opinion piece on Friday under the byline of Sun Xiaobo that the media had a role to play in providing “crucial information to the public”.

“Negative information is unavoidable,” Sun wrote. “In the internet era, publishing accurate information online is the best way to prevent inaccurate and exaggerated messages.

“The government could have done a better job in guiding the media to quell the sweeping panic, but they chose the convenient way of putting harsh restrictions on media instead of seeking efficient interactions.”

[…] In the unusual opinion piece, Sun called on the government to allow media to report some news issues more openly to avoid miscommunication.

“The latest vaccine scandal has challenged the media’s duty and the media-government relationship,” Sun said. “This has to be taken seriously and addressed properly.” [Source]

Global Times previously criticized Caixin’s reposting of a 2013 photo essay showing children allegedly harmed by vaccination. The article has received backlash as some fear that it would further undermine Chinese parents’ trust in vaccines’ safety.