SHANGHAI • Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday described a vaccine safety scandal as "vile" and "shocking" as police opened a criminal investigation into the firm responsible and its management.
"Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology's illegal production of vaccines is vile in nature and shocking," Mr Xi said, according to state broadcaster CCTV. The President is visiting Africa.
Police in the north-eastern city of Changchun, where the company is based, said on social media that they had opened a criminal investigation into illegal production of the rabies vaccine and taken the company chairman and four subordinates in for investigation.
Shares in Chinese vaccine-makers and biotech firms fell across the board yesterday after Premier Li Keqiang slammed Changsheng Biotechnology for having crossed a moral red line and called for swift action.
Jilin-based manufacturer Changsheng has been found to have faked production documents related to a rabies vaccine given to babies as young as three months, underscoring the difficulties China faces in cleaning up the image of what is the world's No. 2 drug industry as it aims to promote locally-made vaccines abroad.
While there have been no apparent reports of people being harmed by the vaccine, the regulator ordered Changsheng to halt production and recall the product after the scandal emerged earlier this month.
The case has gone viral in China, where sensitivity over food and drug safety is extremely high after a slew of scandals over the last decade. A hashtag related to the case had been read more than 600 million times by mid-afternoon yesterday, despite reports that some posts were being taken down by censors.
"All my friends are freaking out over this vaccine case, everyone is scared. It really reflects big loopholes and issues with China's food and drug safety regulation," wrote one Weibo user under the handle 1988 Cheng Hongyu.
"Yesterday it was milk powder, today vaccines. What will it be tomorrow?" another wrote, referring to a major scandal in 2008 when several infants died after the industrial chemical melamine was added to milk powder to raise its protein levels.
In a statement posted on the government's website late on Sunday, Premier Li called for an immediate investigation and urged severe punishment for the companies and people implicated. He added that the public needed clear information.
"We will resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that endanger people's lives, resolutely punish lawbreakers according to the law and resolutely and severely criticise dereliction of duty in supervision," he said.
Last year, Changsheng sold 252,600 substandard DPT vaccines to inoculate children against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus, a regulator in the north-eastern Jilin said last Friday.
The authorities in Hebei announced separately yesterday that nearly 150,000 people in the northern province had received a sub-standard diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine made by another firm, Wuhan Institute of Biological Products. Hebei said it has launched steps to administer new vaccines to those affected.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS