The search for truths in China's illegal vaccine scandal: The China Post columnist

Officials of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) checking the vaccines stored in the local Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in China on March 21, 2016.
Officials of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) checking the vaccines stored in the local Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in China on March 21, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

Frank Ching
The China Post/Asia News Network 

The impact of the latest health-care scandal in mainland China, this time involving the sale of illegal vaccines, is spreading as officials acknowledge that more than two-thirds of the country's provinces are affected.

Hong Kong, too, is a victim as mainland parents who don't trust vaccines made and distributed in China bring their children to Hong Kong for inoculations. Already the number of non-local children treated in Hong Kong so far this year is 27 per cent higher than for the same period last year.

While the Hong Kong government insists that there are sufficient vaccines for all local children, the city cannot possibly provide for the medical needs of a country of over a billion people or even of neighbouring Guangdong province, whose population is more than 10 times that of Hong Kong.

The Chinese police say that improperly stored or expired vaccines, valued at US$88 million (S$119 million), have been sold in 24 of China's 32 provincial-level regions. More than 130 persons have been detained so far in a widening investigation. The illegal operations have apparently been ongoing since 2011.

The case has shocked and incensed the Chinese public, heightening suspicion of drugs manufactured and sold in the country.

At a news conference conducted by the Ministry of Public Security, a senior official said 20,000 unused doses of improperly stored or expired vaccines have been found so far. Officials said that most of the "dubious vaccines" had already been used, in what may have been an attempt to reassure the public that it is now safe to vaccinate their children.

The Shandong police announced that they had two suspects in custody — a 47-year-old former pharmacist and her daughter, a medical school graduate. 

The mother and daughter had bought 25 kinds of vaccines — including those for flu, chicken pox, hepatitis A, meningitis and rabies — from both licenced and unlicenced sources and sold them through vaccination outlets, including disease control and prevention centres.

The vaccination scandal is reminiscent of the milk powder scare a few years back when melamine-tainted milk sickened 300,000 children in China and killed six, causing mainlanders to scour the world for milk powder, beginning with Hong Kong.

Now, again, it is being suggested that Hong Kong is the go-to place for safe vaccinations.

According to the Hong Kong Free Press, a post shared on messaging service WeChat entitled "Protect yourself from poisonous vaccinations, a guide to taking your child to Hong Kong for vaccinations," provided information on steps to take to book an appointment at maternal and child care centres in Hong Kong and provided a list of locations.

More surprising is the way the official media in the mainland has responded to the vaccine scandal. 

Only last month, Communist party general secretary and mainland Chinese leader Xi Jinping had personally visited the main media organs — the Xinhua News Agency, the People's Daily and CCTV — and instructed them to "love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and actions."

But some official media organs have been highly critical of the government's handling of the latest scandal and the lack of transparency in the country. 

"The authorities have nobody but themselves to blame for the disbelief and mistrust they face," the China Daily opined.

"Looking back at what has gone wrong is embarrassing. Acknowledging it may be demeaning. But underplaying or simply looking aside from the root causes has cost the authorities dearly."

Even the normally vociferously pro-government Global Times weighed in with what seemed like a direct rebuttal of Xi's directive for the media to toe the government line.

"In the internet era, publishing accurate information online is the best way to prevent inaccurate and exaggerated rhetoric," Global Times asserted. "In the vaccine scandal, the authorities could have quickly organised media outlets to publish official information."

It concluded: "The role of the media has been misunderstood. The media's role of supervision doesn't jeopardise the government's image, but helps build up its credibility. The latest vaccine scandal has challenged the media's duty and the media-government relationship. This has to be taken seriously and addressed promptly."

The China Daily and Global Times are official state newspapers. 

They are pleading with the party to allow them to do their job to report the truth and asking the party to make the truth available. 

This, they are saying, will actually help, not hinder, the party. If the party really wants to do a good job of running the country and gaining the support of the people, it should listen to such voices rather than silencing them.