Chinese Lawyers Call For Official Transparency in Vaccine Scandal

china-vaccine-03292016.jpg Arrest of a businesswoman surnamed Pang over the sale of tainted vaccines, in undated photo.
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A group of Chinese lawyers have penned an open letter to China's cabinet, the State Council, calling on the government to release a list of companies involved in a nationwide 570 million yuan (U.S.$87.6 million) tainted vaccine scandal, amid international calls for tighter safeguards.

The letter, signed by 13 lawyers, calls for the release of a list of companies implicated in the scandal, which went public with the arrest of two businesswomen surnamed Pang in the eastern province of Shandong last week.

It also demanded that new procedures be put in place for the monitoring of vaccine storage in the private sector.

Letter signatory and Guangdong-based lawyer Wang Shengsheng said the lawyers had been moved to write the letter after reading stories of children who had been made sick or died after receiving tainted vaccines.

"We are just a few lawyers who all have kids, and we feel the same as the average parent does," Wang said. "We don't know whether the vaccinations that our kids are receiving are going to be tainted or not."

"Neither can we be certain that vaccines our kids have already received are effective."

130 detained in Shandong

He cited the story of one parent whose child had been vaccinated six times for the viral disease hepatitis B, but still lacks immunity.

Chinese police have detained more than 130 people since Shandong police announced on Mar. 19 that they had evidence linking some 300 suspects to illegal vaccine sales transactions in 24 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions.

The Pangs are currently being held on suspicion of selling vaccines that were past their expiry or that had been improperly refrigerated.

But healthcare professionals have repeatedly called for a list of affected suppliers, so they can verify that their own stocks of vaccine are safe.

The emerging scandal has also seen reports of deaths and health problems among recently vaccinated children across China.

Top investigative journalist Wang Keqin, who has written ground-breaking exposes of tainted vaccine issues in the past, reported via his social media account that a 33-day-old infant in the northern city of Xi'an had died after receiving vaccinations on Mar. 3 at a local clinic run by the Chinese Red Cross.

Sichuan-based rights lawyer Ran Tong, who also signed the letter, said parents across China are reeling from a string of public health scandals in recent years.

"It seems that there are endless public safety disasters emerging in China, and every time the government promises to investigate, to punish people and make sure it never happens again," Ran said.

"But it seems to me that this doesn't have much effect. That's why we, the people, have to speak out as loud as we can."

"These issues must be exposed, for the safety of the next generation," he said.

WHO urges stronger regulation

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for stronger regulation of private-sector vaccines in mainland China.

"The same high standards used to distribute [WHO-backed] vaccines should be used in the distribution of privately purchased vaccines," China representative Bernhard Schwartländer said in a statement on the WHO China website posted shortly after Beijing announced it had set up a probe into the scandal.

"Last week’s exposure of a criminal ring re-selling vaccines across China has revealed problems in one part of this supply chain – the distribution of vaccines available for purchase on the private market," he wrote.

He said the quality of vaccines produced in China is high, meeting or exceeding international standards.

"The issue is what happens once the vaccines leave the factory," Schwartländer wrote. "Distribution of vaccines for the private market do not follow the same high standards."

He said WHO "is in close contact" with Chinese health officials.

Earlier this month, a four-year-old boy in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong died after receiving a vaccination, sparking further public anger and fears for the safety of immunization programs.

He died on March 8 in the Heyuan People's Hospital after being given a group A + C meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine and a live attenuated polio vaccine at the Zhongba Huanle Kindergarten on March 4, local media reported at the time.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chan Siu-po for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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