Last month, a 300-people black market vaccine ring involved with the sale of expired or improperly-stored vaccines was exposed, marking one of the largest medical scandals in Chinese history. The State Council met on Wednesday to detain and implicate 202 people and 357 officials, amend the law, and increase punishment for the perpetrators.
The illegal trade in 570 million yuan worth of spoiled vaccines was orchestrated by a Shandong mother and daughter. 2 million potentially dangerous vaccines were distributed across 24 provinces — over two-thirds of the country. A statement released by officials estimated that the illicit vaccine trade involved 45 different groups, and authorities announced they were trying to track down 300 people involved.
The improperly-handled vaccines do not pose a greater health risk to individuals receiving them; however, they do leave people unprotected from diseases, such polio, measles, rabies, chicken pox and Hepatitis A. Parents across China have taken action themselves and began going outside the country to vaccinate their children. This widespread occurrence led Hong Kong’s Maternal and Child Healthcare Centers to set a quota of 120 non-resident children to take vaccines each month.
The scandal has thrown into question the Chinese health system’s regulatory guidelines in the distribution of non-mandatory, private purchase, “Category 2” vaccines, which include those for diseases like Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and meningitis.
Back in 2005, the State Council issued rules determining that the government would only strictly regulate necessary Category 1 vaccines, leaving Category 2 vaccines to fall into the chaos of market competition, Caixin reports. To ensure a steady source of income, disease control centers have resorted to raising prices, establishing long-term partnerships with vaccine manufacturers and encouraging hospitals to recommend non-mandatory vaccines to their patients. This shady system with little governmental oversight provided a golden opportunity for exploitation.
After netizens, parents and even celebrities spoke out about the alarming health crisis, officials tasked Bi Jingquan, the head of China’s Food and Drug Administration, to lead a cross-departmental investigation regarding improper vaccine trading.
“These vaccine cases impacted many regions… and exposed prominent problems such as inadequate quality supervision and management, delayed discovery and punishment of illegal selling, official nonfeasance and an immature risk management mechanism,” read a statement released after Bi’s meeting.
On April 13th, the State Council met in a session that Premier Le Keqiang presided over. He firmly stated: “We must learn from the vile dealings in the illegal vaccine trade. The health of our citizens is imperative and we will strictly deal with the people responsible, whether they are government officials or citizens.”
The investigators exposed collusion between government clinics and vendors in rural areas with weak oversight. Consequentially, the meeting announced that 357 officials, across 17 provinces, will either lose their jobs or be demoted, Xinhua reports. In addition to that, 192 criminal cases have been filed and 202 people have already been detained.
Administrators in the meeting also amended the management of vaccine circulation. A system will be set up to track both Class A and Class B vaccines from manufacturing to storing. The transportation of these vaccines to hospitals will be monitored by provincial-level disease control governmental organizations, which will prevent hospitals from potentially purchasing ineffective and unsafe vaccines.
Moreover, fines for those involved in the illegal sale and transport of vaccines have drastically increased.
This all comes now, despite the fact that the Shandong mother and daughter couple at the center of the scandal were arrested in April 2015.
Ever since the 2008 milk formula scandal that caused the deaths of six infants, public confidence in the national health system has been low. While many people have welcomed governmental action, others have questioned the effectiveness of the law and even hypothesized that the 357 officials may easily escape punishment. BBC reports heavy censorship on various platforms regarding illegal vaccine trading.
But, still, even this little girl seems to know what’s up:
By Sarah Lin
[Images via Sohu]