Chinese authorities have ordered a company in the northeastern province of Jilin to halt production of a vaccine after it was recalled last week, amid an ongoing probe into fraudulent business practices, official media reported.
China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) ordered Changchun Changsheng Life Sciences to halt production on Sunday, after it found evidence that the company had "fabricated production records and product inspection records, arbitrarily changed process parameters and equipment" during its production of freeze-dried human rabies vaccines, state news agency Xinhua reported.
The move comes after the agency last week revoked Changchun Changsheng's license to produce the vaccine, following "serious violations of relevant law and regulations," and ordered a recall of unused vaccines, it cited a CFDA official as saying.
An investigation into the company was triggered following a spot-check at Changchun's production facility by food and drug regulators acting on a tip-off on July 5.
"All vaccine producers in China are subject to unannounced inspection and any violations of law and regulations will be dealt with seriously," Xinhua quoted the official as saying.
Repeated calls to Changchun Changsheng rang unanswered during office hours on Monday. Calls to the Jilin provincial FDA and the CFDA in Beijing also rang unanswered.
News that thousands of Chinese children have been given the faulty rabies jab prompted outrage on social media, with many commenters calling on President Xi Jinping to deal with the scandal in person.
Xi was reported by official media as saying that the scandal was "terrible and shocking."
"It is the unshirkable duty of the government to ensure the safety of medicines," the president was quoted as saying, while premier Li Keqiang ordered an investigation team to Jilin under the direction of China's cabinet, the State Council.
"We will resolutely crack down on all illegal and criminal acts that endanger people's health and safety, and resolutely punish those who violate the law according to law," Li said in a statement carried on official government websites, calling for those responsible to be punished.
Comments posted to the social media platform Sina Weibo were scathing in response to a widely circulated article on the scandal.
"The authorities have all the power, but don't take responsibility, while the people have nothing but responsibility and no power," wrote user @kuaileyitahutu666.
"We need to bring back lynching for this era," wrote @shuixiangyingyue, while @huhuhupinggui said official promises no longer carried any weight with the public, who are too used to seeing them come to nothing.
"Step up supervision, seriously pursue those responsible, no rest until we have fully investigated: I am numb when I read these phrases now," @huhuhupinggui wrote. "It's scary the way they just shout these slogans."
"Yesterday, I read the words 'total reform and rectification,' and I knew that this meant that nothing had been done," wrote user @buleitengdepeigenzi.
"They might as well be farting. This stuff [officials say] is more evil than farts, sad to say," added @shulaibaodanye.
And in a caustic pun on the Chinese title of a recent propaganda film, "My country is amazing!", user @maimuzangyu quipped: "Profit has ruined my country."
Many users seemed to assume the problems are likely more widespread than the scandal centered on Changchun Changsheng.
User @zhoudaoyan said: "Logic dictates that just because other problems haven't emerged at other companies, doesn't mean they are safe."
Ren Ruihong, former head of the medical assistance department at the Chinese Red Cross, said the country's multi-billion dollar pharmaceuticals business is dominated by powerful vested interests, and tainted or substandard vaccines are common in the industry.
"It's the same situation regarding Chinese vaccines across the board," Ren told RFA. "Back in the day we wanted to invest in this area ... but we were told by insiders that we should try something else, and never to get involved in biotechnology, because all the goings on behind the scenes meant that it wasn't the sort of thing that just anyone could get involved in."
"You can never see what is really going on at these pharmaceuticals. This is an industry rife with profiteers," Ren said.
Sun Dawu, chairman of the Dawu Group conglomerate based in the northern province of Hebei, said that everyone knows the root cause of China's recent medicine and vaccine safety scandals, but that people are reluctant to say it in public.
"Everyone knows what's going on here," Sun said. "At the very least, we need greater public scrutiny, because a lot of issues aren't coming to light."
"There is plenty of corruption and there are some harmful activities going on behind the legal cloak of the six [pharmaceutical] certificates," he said.
Little has changed
Top investigative journalist Wang Keqin, who published a ground-breaking expose of tainted vaccine issues in the northern province of Shanxi in 2010, said little has changed in China in the wake of his efforts.
"I broke the story wide open in 2010, and there was even a draft legislative bill tabled, and then nothing more happened," Wang said. "Not a single [health] official was disciplined in Shanxi, still less anyone in the ministry of health."
"On the contrary; many of the victims who were complaining about the situation were placed under surveillance," he said. "The investigative team I headed up was disbanded, and former editor Bao [Yueyin] of the China Economic Times lost his job."
Wang, who left his job after breaking the Shanxi tainted vaccine story, had previously predicted a recurrence of issues with domestically produced vaccines, should the ruling Chinese Communist Party fail to deal effectively with the systemic problems that gave rise to the Shanxi scandal.
Wang declined to comment on the Changchun Changsheng scandal, saying he felt too "powerless" to do so.
Shaanxi-based parent Jiang Keling said his child had stopped breathing and required emergency treatment just hours after receiving the Baibaipo vaccine made by a Wuhan-based biotech company.
"This vaccine issue isn't an isolated case; it has happened many times before, but there has been a lack of transparency," Jiang told RFA on Monday. "If there is no transparency in this case either, then these problems will continue to happen."
Zhejiang-based Ren Guagua, whose child was left in need of a bone marrow transplant after being given a vaccine made by a Chengdu biotech firm three years ago, said the vaccine had caused lymphadenopathy, and yet the authorities had refused to accept that it was the cause.
"The diagnosis given by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that my kid's disease has nothing to do with the vaccine," Ren told RFA.
"[But] several authoritative doctors in Shanghai told me that my child's illness is related to the vaccine. Now my child is lying in hospital, in need of bone marrow."
Reported by Lau Siu-fung, Wong Siu-san and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service.Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.