By John Hayward
The grim saga of Changsheng Biotechnology continues to roil China with news Wednesday that the embattled pharmaceutical firm produced a second huge batch of substandard vaccine doses for children, doubling the number of doses originally estimated.
The South China Morning Post reported that the first batch of 252,600 suspicious vaccine doses was sold entirely in the province of Shandong. Another batch of 247,200 doses has been discovered, of which 90 percent were sold in Shandong and the rest in Anhui.
This puts the total number of substandard vaccine doses from Changsheng just shy of half a million, and the total number of substandard batches up to nearly one million. Chinese drug regulators evidently believe nearly all of them were, in fact, administered to children. The SCMP reported that 76 percent of the children who received injections from the first batch have been treated by doctors and “plans were in place” to treat those inoculated from the second batch.
The Chinese government’s effort to tamp down public anger by forbidding discussion of the vaccine crisis does not appear to be working, as Nikkei Asian Review reported on Tuesday that Chinese social media is still buzzing with “angry posts from parents wondering whether their children received substandard vaccines amid reports that some companies had used expired ingredients and doctored testing records.”
Nikkei Asian Review contributor Yanzhong Huang of Seton Hall University faulted the Chinese government for investing more effort in political damage control than dealing with the vaccine problem:
To limit the wider impact on social and political stability, the government seems more focused on damage control than on cleaning up the scandal-ridden vaccine industry. Officials have reportedly restricted news coverage and censors have swiftly scrubbed away widely shared essays and posts criticizing the government or spreading bad news. Even news reports from state-owned publications, such as an investigation into Wuhan Institute’s substandard vaccines by the newspaper Economic Observer, have been taken down.
What Beijing should do instead is to engage with all key stakeholders to strengthen vaccine safety. Officials should actively seek the input and involvement of the public, the industry and the press in exposing, investigating and penalizing irregularities and violations.
This would require treating whistleblowers as heroes, not as troublemakers. It would also mean introducing more transparency in the regulation of vaccine safety. Public discussion on vaccine safety should be channeled in a way that facilitates information flow and increased accountability in the policy process rather than rely on top-down, state-centric regulation.
Eighteen arrests of Changsheng personnel have been made so far, including chairwoman Gao Junfang, once hailed as the “Vaccine Queen” and possibly the wealthiest woman in China.
Gao’s rise from humble origins to billionaire tycoon was formerly the stuff of legend, but now accusations are swirling that she gained control of the company by cheating workers out of their stock holdings and engaged in other shady business practices, including bribery of public officials. Gao’s 18.1 percent stake in Changsheng Biotechnology was frozen by Chinese officials last week.
The Chinese public seems unwilling to accept even the plumpest and most carefully roasted corporate scapegoat. With remarkable persistence for the population of an authoritarian Communist state, they insist public officials who played a role must be punished as well, and they are questioning the integrity of the entire bureaucratic system.