As protests continue, Chinese authorities arrest 18 Changsheng Biotech employees, including chairwoman Gao Junfang. In addition to corruption and poor quality controls, experts see protectionism as one of the causes of the low quality of medial drugs. Red tape keeps foreign suppliers out.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Eighteen employees in a major Chinese pharmaceutical manufacturer have been arrested, including chairwoman Gao Junfang.
Based in Jilin, Changchun Changsheng Biotech has come under close scrutiny for its alleged involvement in producing and selling substandard vaccines for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT) as well as rabies.
For his part, the director of the Immunisation Management Department with the Shandong Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Song Lizhi, has attempted suicide. He is currently in critical condition after injecting himself with a large dose of insulin.
After a meeting of the State Council (cabinet) chaired by Prime Minister Li Keqiang on Monday, the Council announced that enterprises and individuals will be severely punished and banned from the sector for life.
It also ordered further investigations to determine the responsibility of government officials involved in the Changsheng Biotech case.
Online, ordinary Chinese continue to vent their anger. On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, many users expressed their outrage at how the situation was handled.
“I just want to ask whether there will be any official taking responsibility and resigning or being punished for this,” one user asked, wondering “Why was our regulatory authority cleared of responsibility when such a thing happened?”
In light of the latest scandal, consumers’ trust in pharmaceuticals has collapsed. Many Chinese parents now want to take their children to Hong Kong or Japan for vaccinations.
The Changsheng Biotech affair has also raised several questions about Beijing’s protectionist measures against foreign vaccines.
Economist Wang Fuzhong has called on the government to open the door wider to imported vaccines in the wake of the scandal, writing on his blog that this would activate market competition.
Wang added that a competitive and efficient market would improve safety in the industry, noting that a closed market leads to inefficiency, corruption and health risks.
The already tiny share of imported vaccines in the Chinese market has gone down from 5 per cent in 2012 to 2.5 per cent last year.
Of the vaccines available in China, nearly 80 per cent are category 1 products and are included in the mandatory government immunisation programme and must be supplied almost exclusively by Chinese companies.
The remaining 20 per cent are category 2 products that are open to competition from foreign suppliers.
The China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) is the body that grants licence for products approved for sale in China. Licences must be renewed every five years, but the CFDA can decide not to renew them without giving a reason, which is what happened to US-based Pfizer.
In 2015, the CFDA refused to renew the import licence for Prevenar 7, a Pfizer vaccine that protects infants from pneumonia, with no explanation.
It took 18 months for the company to get approval to sell an upgraded version of the vaccine, Prevenar 13, in China. That left mainland Chinese with no access to Prevenar products for that period.
George Kuo, chairman of privately-run Shanghai American-Sino Obstetrics and Gynaecology Service, brought in 13,000 doses of 11 types of vaccines without a licence. He was eventually convicted of selling “fake drugs” by a Shanghai court and sentenced to seven years in jail.
A case similar to that of Pfizer involved Sanofi Pasteur, which retreated from China after Beijing changed its standards in 2010. This left the field open to Changseng Biotech, which is now embroiled in a major legal case.
Thanks to Sanofi Pasteur’s withdrawal, the Jilin-based company became the second biggest rabies vaccine supplier in the country last year, with a 23 per cent market share.