China rocked by yet another massive vaccine scandal, outraged parents overwhelm censors

Yet another massive vaccine scandal has rocked China this past week with tens of thousands of parents taking to social media to voice their renewed fears over their children’s safety in a country that is becoming weary of these kinds of public safety crises.

On July 15th, the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) announced that Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology, one of China’s major vaccine-makers, had violated quality management standards in producing its rabies vaccinations for humans by forging production and inspection records.

The vaccines are given to infants as young as three months old. Changsheng, whose company name means “long life,” is the country’s second-largest maker of rabies vaccines. More than 250,000 of these faulty vaccines were reportedly sold in Shandong province.

Only a few days later, the CFDA issued a second statement, announcing that a separate investigation into Changsheng had discovered that the Jilin-based company had also been selling another type of substandard vaccine — one for treating diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT) — for which it has been fined 3.4 million yuan ($500,000).

Changsheng has been ordered to halt production. It has issued a statement expressing its “deepest apologies” and has promised to learn from its mistakes. On Sunday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that the company had crossed a “moral red line,” calling for an immediate investigation and urging for severe punishments against those responsible. The company’s website has since gone offline after being attacked by hackers and its stock price has plummetted.

Thus far, there have been no reports about any people being harmed by these vaccines. While the rabies vaccine has been recalled and is reportedly off the market, the status of the DPT vaccines is not clear. It’s also unclear how many Chinese children received these vaccines and what sort of impact it could have on their health.

With all of these unanswered questions swirling around, Chinese parents took to WeChat and Weibo last week to express their concern and outrage at what is only the latest in long series of similar public health scares over the past decade in China. While reactions to the Changsheng scandal were initially censored, it appears that Chinese censors have now been forced into being more lenient as the scandal has become the only piece of news that anyone in China seems to be talking about, with frequent updates and many threads on Weibo containing hundreds, if not thousands, of critical comments.

“Endangering the health of children is the most grave of crimes. These people should not be fined, they should be put to death,” argued one Weibo user. “How am I supposed to raise a healthy child if I cannot give them vaccines or let them drink milk?” writes another netizen.

This second comment refers to China’s similarly infamous string of milk powder scandals which was kicked off in 2008 with the deaths of six children who drank infant formula that had been tainted with melamine. That tragedy shook public confidence in Chinese manufacturers and health institutions, a blow from which China’s milk industry has still not managed to recover.

Public confidence was further undermined in 2016 when a black market vaccine ring was exposed for having distributed 2 million potentially dangerous vaccines across 24 provinces over the course of five years. Such scandals have caused Chinese parents to be wary of homegrown vaccines and frustrated China’s massive pharmaceutical industry’s efforts for expanding abroad. However, this latest scandal may potentially be even more consequential for China’s reputation as a safe manufacturer of pharmaceuticals, arising from one of the country’s major vaccine-makers, a publicly-listed company which has also been punished in the past for flouting regulations.

Of course, this kind of scandal also creates serious concerns for Beijing. While China’s Communist Party regularly manages to conceal or crack down on public protests, those that it has the most difficult time covering up are those widespread bursts of anger and outrage that occur when children — particularly those of the middle class — are put in danger.

In an editorial published yesterday, the state-run tabloid, the Global Times, wrote: “Every item of negative news in this area attracts the attention of all society. Supervising and regulating the safe production of vaccines can be argued as a test of a modern country’s governance.”