China detains 202 over illegal vaccine trade

Authorities vow to address weaknesses in pharmaceuticals market exposed by scandal

BEIJING • China said yesrerday that 202 people have been detained in connection with a scandal over an illegal black market vaccine ring as it vowed to improve supervision of the market.

Another 357 health and regulatory officials have received administrative punishments, the State Council said in a report. It added: "Vaccine quality and safety are to do with people's lives and health, especially children, and is a red line that cannot be crossed."

The case, involving millions of illegal trades, has ignited public ire and underscored regulatory weaknesses in the world's second largest pharmaceuticals market.

The Chinese vaccine market is expected to hit 40 billion yuan (S$8.3 billion) in 2018, up from about 25 billion yuan last year, consultancy McKinsey & Co said.

The State Council said that while China's vaccine system is generally safe, the case has exposed serious failings and there are lessons to be learnt.The supervision and regulatory system would be tightened, with better record-keeping for the production, storage and transportation of vaccines, and tougher punishments for lawbreakers, it said.

ENTRY BARRIERS

For multinationals, there are hurdles to bring key products to market, including registration timelines. 

MCKINSEY SENIOR PARTNER FRANCK LE DEU, on vaccines not being available in mainland China

The scandal has stirred angry debate, casting a shadow over government ambitions to bolster the domestic drug industry and underlining the challenge it faces to regulate a widespread and fragmented medicine supply chain.

The vaccines, including ones against meningitis and rabies, are suspected to have been sold in dozens of provinces around China since 2011.

China said it has not found any spike in abnormal reactions to inoculations and that the vaccines themselves were real, though traded illegally and improperly stored.

McKinsey noted that more than 30 types of vaccine products, common elsewhere in the world and identified by top multinationals as their major revenue generators, are not approved for sale in mainland China. Its senior partner Franck Le Deu said: "For multinationals, there are hurdles to bring key products to market, including registration timelines."

China requires companies to conduct local clinical trials for products that are already approved elsewhere, sometimes with stricter criteria than required by the World Health Organisation.

This leads to many years of delay before they become available.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2016, with the headline 'China detains 202 over illegal vaccine trade'. Print Edition | Subscribe