Chinese authorities have arrested 37 people linked to five years of illegal vaccine sales

A Chinese worker arranges Hepatitis-A vaccines for packing.
A Chinese worker arranges Hepatitis-A vaccines for packing.
Image: Reuters/Claro Cortes IV
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Chinese police have detained 37 people linked to a mother and daughter team accused of selling illegal vaccines worth nearly $90 million nationwide for five years, state news wire Xinhua reported on Wednesday (Mar. 23).

A former doctor and her daughter in the eastern Shandong province, who allegedly sold improperly stored or expired vaccines worth more than 570 million yuan ($88 million) across the country since 2011, were taken into police custody earlier, Xinhua said. Three pharmaceutical companies are also being investigated by the police, Xinhua reported.

Twelve kinds of vaccines—including for rabies, polio, mumps, hepatitis and encephalitis—have been confiscated, drug regulators in Shandong said on Monday (Mar. 21). None of them are mandatory in China, the regulators said, meaning they are supplied to local hospitals and disease control centers by licensed companies rather than the government.

Over the weekend, local drug regulators named 300 customers and suppliers (link in Chinese) in 24 provinces who police are searching for.

The vaccine scandal has sparked anger among Chinese parents and raised serious concerns over China’s drug safety. It is not clear how many people have been affected by the illegal vaccines, but the money involved suggests hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

State-controlled digital publication the Paper first reported the case last week. The original article (link in Chinese, cashed version) has been taken offline after government authorities told media in China to censor it on Tuesday (Mar. 22). According to the Paper’s report, Pang, who was only identified by her surname, and her daughter, were arrested for suspected “illegal business operation” for selling unrefrigerated and expired vaccines in a police raid in 2015. It is unclear why the case was reported by the Paper months after the initial investigation.

The World Health Organization said in a Mar. 22 statement that it is awaiting the Chinese government’s investigation results. An improperly stored or expired vaccine can lose potency but ”seldom if ever causes a toxic reaction,” the WHO said. The risk to children “is lack of protection from the disease for which the vaccine was intended.”

China’s internet, however, has linked the case to an earlier, fatal vaccine scandal. A 2013 photo collection of 20 children who died or were paralyzed after injecting mandatory vaccines has been widely shared online after financial media house Caixin re-posted the photos. “After Chinese people’s global shopping sprees on infant formula, rice cookers and toilet lids, we’ll definitively bring our wives and kids to get vaccinations all around the world,” one blogger wrote on Twitter-like Weibo (link in Chinese).