China launches nationwide vaccine sector inspection after scandal

A child receiving a vaccination shot at the local disease control and prevention center in Jiujiang in China's central Jiangxi province, on July 24, 2018.
A child receiving a vaccination shot at the local disease control and prevention center in Jiujiang in China's central Jiangxi province, on July 24, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

CHANGCHUN/SHANGHAI (REUTERS, AFP) - China has launched sweeping spot checks at vaccine makers around the country in a bid to rein in outrage after Changsheng Bio-technology was found to have falsified data and sold ineffective vaccines for children.

A government inspection group was at Changsheng’s main factory in the northeastern city of Changchun on Thursday (July 26), police outside the site said. A Reuters reporter saw vehicles from the China Food and Drug Administration enter the site.

The running checks on production lines of all vaccine makers come as authorities seek to restore confidence in the sector and allay fears that the scandal could threaten ambitions for Chinese-made vaccines to be exported overseas.

“We can rest assured that there will now be more unannounced inspections,” Dr Gauden Galea, China representative for the World Health Organisation (WHO), told Reuters, adding that Chinese manufacturers would be put to the test.

“The data, the dossiers are going to be looked at clearly, the clinical trials are going to be looked at, assessments of safety, purity, efficacy are going to be done in more numbers," he said.

Changsheng’s Shenzhen-listed shares were battered again on Thursday, falling 5 per cent – the maximum allowed after the bourse slapped the company with a “special treatment” risk alert that restricts share price movement and is a step towards a firm being delisted.

The stock, which had been suspended from trade on Wednesday, has lost more than US$1.9 billion (S$2.6 billion) or more than half its market value, since the scandal erupted in mid-July.

Changsheng, whose chairman is among 15 people detained by police over the scandal, earlier this week publicly apologised and flagged that it could face a delisting. It is also the subject of a corruption probe by China’s top graft watchdog.

In addition to the running checks, China’s food and drug regulator also said the country would punish individuals and companies involved in the scandal and investigate public officials linked to the case.

Other Chinese vaccine makers, hit by the fallout from the scandal, extended declines on Thursday. Shenzhen Kangtai Biological Products has now lost some 37 per cent while Chongqing Zhifei Biological Products has tumbled 20 per cent since their shares began to slide last week.

Dr Galea told Reuters that the WHO would watch closely to see if the case spilled over to other domestic vaccine makers, but that China’s response so-far had been effective.

“We will look at that investigation carefully, we will also look at results for what they imply for other companies,” he said, adding the case did not mean that Chinese vaccines would not be used overseas.

“One cannot just eliminate a whole country because of one outlier.”

Highlighting the high-profile nature of the scandal, a group of around 40 petitioners were also gathered outside Changsheng’s factory gates despite driving rain. The people wanted to air grievances unrelated to the vaccine maker, but said they hoped to use the case to get heard by leaders in Beijing.

The case leapt to the top of the national agenda last weekend as parents and other consumers vented their anger and frustration at manufacturers and the regulators tasked with supervising them.

The depth of public outrage revealed on social media appeared to have caught authorities off-guard, and national leaders have scrambled in recent days to vow a thorough safety clean-up of the pharmaceutical sector.

In a sign of the high-level unease, President Xi Jinping - on a trip to Africa - weighed in earlier this week by calling the vaccine company's actions "vile in nature and shocking", according to state media.

China is regularly hit by scandals involving sub-par or toxic food, drugs and other products, despite repeated promises by the ruling Communist Party to address the problem.