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Hundreds of Chinese officials are to be sacked or demoted for their part in a vaccine scandal that has added to discontent at poor oversight of food and drug safety, especially relating to children.
Xinhua, the state news agency, said late on Wednesday that 357 officials are to face punishment, with 192 criminal cases already filed and 202 people detained after improperly stored or transported vaccines were sent to 59 health institutions.
This is the latest in a string of food and drug safety scandals in a country where parents often import products for infants and babies from overseas to ensure quality. Many remember with fear the 2008 milk powder scandal, in which infant formula laced with melamine caused at least six deaths and 300,000 children to fall ill.
Beijing last month made public an illegal operation in eastern Shandong province in which a hospital pharmacist and her daughter traded $88m in vaccines that may have been compromised because they were expired or improperly stored or transported.
The China Food and Drug Administration said, however, that the vaccines posed no greater than the normal risk to patients. “We don’t see that the vaccines’ effectiveness has been reduced,” added the health watchdog in a report.
Nonetheless, health officials fear a backlash against Chinese-manufactured vaccines, which already have a reputation for being more dangerous than those made overseas. Importation of many vaccines is banned.
Wang Yuedan, deputy director of Peking University’s immunology department, said the key to evaluating risks is to check whether package seals are broken or for contamination with micro-organisms. “The vaccines in the Shandong case don’t have those problems,” he said.
Those vaccines had been subject to higher than normal temperatures that could have lowered their effectiveness and reduced their protective value. But the official investigation showed the vaccines “are still effective”, he said.
Beijing, which publicised the affair almost a year after it was exposed, and several years after it started, appeared eager to show commitment to crack down on abuses by announcing the action, political analysts said.
The CFDA said a system was being set up to track vaccines from production to use.
The World Health Organisation warned the scandal could jeopardise China’s public health gains if parents become distrustful of vaccines. It also expressed confidence in Chinese vaccines, saying public immunisation campaigns had eradicated polio and sharply reduced cases of hepatitis B and measles.
Additional reporting by Jackie Cai