Investigative Report

Shandong's Vaccine Panic

Government officials in China regularly benefit from vaccine sales and have failed to regulate the industry in a way that will prevent incidents related to tainted and improperly stored serums, according to a former top health official in Shanxi province, where one of the country’s first big vaccine scandals occurred.

Officials estimate that up to one million children received tainted vaccines administered in Shanxi between 2006 and 2007, causing many to die or develop serious disabilities, but 10 years later the matter remains unresolved and no one has been brought to justice for their role in the scandal.

Subsequent scandals, including one in early 2016 in which a female medical school graduate from Shandong province was found to have sold vaccines to 24 provinces and cities over five years without approval, have led to doubts over safety—to the extent that many parents refuse to get their children inoculated.

In March, 2016, following the Shandong scandal, Premier Li Keqiang pledged that China’s central government would “conduct a severe and thorough investigation” into the matter and called for greater monitoring of products that could “cause harm to the lives of the people.”

But Chen Tao’an, the former director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Information Department in Shanxi, told RFA’s Cantonese Service that local health officials often collude with private pharmaceutical companies to bypass quality controls and benefit from China’s highly lucrative vaccine business.

“It has essentially become a government-run business,” he said.

“The government both sells and controls the vaccines.”

According to Chen, more than 450,000 companies held pharmaceutical trade licenses in China by the end of 2013, but only a handful of government employees have been authorized to ensure quality in the market since the establishment of the State Food and Drug Administration 18 years ago.

“There are over 100,000 people in the provincial, municipal, and county Food and Drug Administrations and it is a serious problem that they have only trained 500 employees on supervision and inspection qualifications,” he said.

“In other words, the market and its regulation are not independent. [Regulators] can make money in the market, so they all engage in the business. The government officials are all involved, so how can there be anyone who supervises?”

Chen said local authorities have little incentive to make improvements to production, distribution, and oversight, and warned that incidents like those in Shanxi and Shandong would continue to occur without controls in place to keep government officials out of the business side of the vaccine industry.

Legal woes

In addition to their failure to regulate the industry, authorities have shown little support for families affected by tainted vaccine scandals or have worked to block their efforts to obtain compensation and assistance, Beijing-based rights lawyer Yu Wensheng told RFA.

In the nearly one year that has passed since the Shandong vaccine incident came to light, authorities have yet to announce what action they will take against those involved, and members of the legal community have expressed concerns that the child victims will not receive justice.

Thirty-seven rights lawyers who formed a public interest group to provide legal aid to victims have received many inquiries from interested parents, but Yu said the legal team is still too small to be truly effective.

“In regards to the rights defense case, there are probably too few lawyers who are participating, so there is only so much we can do,” he said.

“We lawyers need to defend their rights collectively.”

Yu called on the government to speed up its investigation and assist the victims instead of hindering the legal process.

“We hope that the authorities will resolve the matter by means of legislation or [deal with] the whole issue and come up with a plan [on their own initiative]. However, they are instead interviewing and suppressing us members who defend the rights of the victims.”

Yu said he did not have an exact number for the victims of the Shandong vaccine scandal, but that more parents are coming forward all the time to provide details about their children’s cases.

Repeat offender

According to Chen, the female medical school graduate surnamed Pang, who allegedly masterminded the tainted vaccine scandal in Shandong, was also to blame for the scandal a decade earlier in Shanxi, but was able to perpetrate a similar crime because authorities in Shanxi took no action against her.

“What happened in Shanxi and Shandong were the same case—after what happened in Shanxi, this gang went to Shandong and committed the same crime again,” he said.

“The main issue was the collusion between the [local] government and the vaccine sellers. I later arranged for someone to act as an undercover agent to compile reports to the [central government], but the state never responded, and the matter dragged on for many years.”

“In the end, my undercover agent provided information to me, but he also took part in the deals himself because he saw that the state did not care.”

According to an official report, Pang’s mother was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 500,000 yuan (U.S. $72,630) in 2009 for operating an illegal vaccine business in Shandong, but returned to illegally selling serum during her probation.

In April 2015, after police in Jinan raided Pang’s rented warehouse, confiscated documents showed that the two women had engaged in as much as 570 million yuan (U.S. $82.6 million) of sales since 2010.

But instead of immediately reporting the scandal and halting the circulation of vaccines, police only issued notices to around 20 prefectural-level cities asking for confirmation on the distribution of serum.

Only in February 2016 did authorities in Jinan issue a notice that the two women had been transferred to the provincial procuratorate for prosecution for the “alleged crime of operating an illegal business.”

Lost faith

A mother in Shandong surnamed Zhang told RFA that she and other parents were frightened and angry after the tainted vaccine scandal, adding that many people had lost faith in the government.

She said her child had tested negative for any effects from a tainted vaccine, but expressed frustration that the government had been so slow to act.

“[The perpetrators] had been doing this for a long time—how many children have they deceived,” she asked.

“The parents are infuriated. How would we ordinary people know the details? We are the disadvantaged group!”

Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.