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Law enforcement personnel from the market supervision and administration bureau check the vaccine supply in Rongan, China, 23 July 2018. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has ordered new investigations into China's DPT vaccine scandal. Thousands of DPT vaccines, which are used to inoculate children against pertussis, diphtheria, and tetanus were found ineffective, according to the Chinese media.
EPA-EFE/Tan Kaixing
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CROSS-BORDER CRISIS

The world is getting a harsh taste of China’s unsafe medicine supply chain

By Echo Huang

This summer, medicines from China have led to two global recalls, posting a huge setback for a country that has been trying to restore consumer confidence in the safety of Chinese food and medicines after a deadly episode of infant formula adulteration a decade ago.

The recalls involve widely used blood pressure medicines, and vaccines.

On Wednesday, authorities launched a recall (link in Chinese) of some products sold overseas by Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology, China’s second-largest largest producer of rabies vaccines, but didn’t specify which countries were on the list. Authorities have found that the company mixed some batches of its rabies vaccines with expired products, and had made up production dates and batch numbers since April 2014 (link in Chinese), according to an investigation team set up by the central government. No deaths or adverse effects have been reported in connection with the vaccines.

The overseas recall marks the widening of a vaccine scandal that has been roiling China since early July, coincidentally coming to light around the anniversary of the infant milk tragedy of 2008. Changchun Changsheng was found to have produced some 3.5 million shots of rabies vaccines that failed to meet the country’s safety standard, and had made about 250,000 defective vaccines used to combat diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT), commonly given to young children.

The vaccine maker said last month that defective rabies vaccines had not entered the market and ensured customers that (link in Chinese) “all rabies vaccines in the market meet the national standard.” The company has halted production (link in Chinese) since late July.But some countries banned products from the vaccine maker anyway. India, for instance, where rabies is endemic through the country, banned imports from the Chinese vaccine maker last week.

It’s not just vaccines.

The US, European Union, Taiwan, and South Korea have all issued recalls of commonly used drug to control blood pressure after investigations found that some of them contained a Chinese-sourced ingredient had been exposed to a chemical considered a probable carcinogen. The FDA first announced its recall last month, also just ahead of the 2008 tainted milk anniversary, and expanded it earlier this month to cover 10 pharmaceutical companies that have sourced the ingredient valsartan from Zhejiang Huahai Pharmaceuticals. It’s still unclear how the chemical, which has also been used as a poison, contaminated the manufacturing process.

Some doctors say the valsartan case is among many that have made them increasingly cautious (paywall) about describing drugs from China and India. China has expanded food and drug safety regulation in the last decade after a series of safety failures, and as it tries to become a bigger developer and exporter of pharmaceuticals.  Yet, it has seen repeated safety scandals over the years (paywall).

“It’s not just the pharmaceutical industry but a common problem. The idea of running a business with honesty hardly exists in China. Lots of industries are using loopholes, taking risks for profits because the cost of committing a crime is small enough to ignore,” wrote one user (link in Chinese) who identified himself as working in the pharmaceutical industry on Zhihu, China’s answer to Quora.

The tendency to try and deal with the fallout of such scandals by silencing online discussion and cracking down on parent protests doesn’t shore up confidence either. Those methods might work well enough to stifle domestic rage, but they won’t be of much use now that the scandals have spread beyond its borders.