Alas! Another year, another food and drug crisis. When will this end?
The latest scandal to engulf China has raised serious concerns over the health of hundreds of thousands of toddlers who might have been injected with faulty vaccines, prompting a nationwide uproar from parents and attracting international headlines.
On the direct orders of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, a bevy of central government authorities including the food and drug, public security, and anti-graft agencies descended on Changchun, the capital city of the northeastern Jilin province, where the culprit drug producer is based.
The Shenzhen-listed Changchun Changsheng Bio-technology was found to have sold some 252,600 substandard DPT vaccines to Shandong province.
It remains unclear how many children have been given the inferior shots against the three diseases – diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus – or whether any child has come to harm.
But this matters no more. While official media features blanket coverage of Xi’s visit to Africa, parents’ irate comments have filled up Chinese social media platforms including WeChat, venting anger and expressing a lack of faith in the government’s food and drug administration.
Subsidised by the government, the DPT vaccine is given to infants across the country. Newborns are usually given four doses with the first jab at three months old.
Richard Liu Qiangdong, one of China’s richest e-commerce tycoons, probably reflected the prevailing feelings by saying in a social media post last week that the person(s) responsible should be jailed for life without parole. The comment went viral.
With the authorities struggling to contain the latest public health crisis, here is the kicker: this scandal would not have happened had the authorities truly followed through with the promises of tighter management of vaccines following a major scandal two years ago. Or the scale of the current crisis could have been much smaller and well contained had the authorities not been busy focusing on censoring social media posts over the past week and a half, and instead been upfront, transparent and decisive.
Indeed, the latest media reports suggest that the Jilin provincial food and drug administration began investigating Changchun Changsheng and the faulty DTP vaccines as early as October last year but did not make public its punishment of the company – a 3.4 million yuan slap of the wrist fine – until July 20. That came before the national food and drug administration announced its decision to punish the company for violating the production procedure of vaccines for rabies on July 15.
Big questions remain over why the provincial regulator released its punishment after a nine-month period and neither the company nor the regulator have given any explanation for the delay. The food and drug regulator in Shandong where the DPT vaccines were sold has not yet given any explanation as to what happened to the quarter of a million vaccines.
It now transpires that Premier Li issued an instruction to investigate the vaccine scandal as early as July 16 but it was not made public until July 23.
Ever since the July 20 announcement caused nationwide concern on social media, officials of various seniority have largely remained silent, as if waiting for an order from above while censoring social media posts.
Only on July 23, state media reported that various government agencies had jumped into action after Xi, far away in Africa, issued an order for a thorough investigation and severe punishment of those found responsible.
Xinhua quoted Xi describing the scandal as “hideous and appalling”.
A task force of all major government departments was assembled on the day and sent to Changchun and a total of 15 suspects including the chairwoman of the company were detained by the police.
The drama seems to suggest a glaring pitfall of the government’s reinforced top-down rule that officials simply wait for their superiors to give orders before taking any action.
According to some media reports, the latest vaccine scandal is the eighth to have occurred since 2004. These all came after the Sars crisis of 2003, when more than 300 people died across the country after the authorities initially tried to cover up the extent of the disease.
Every time a vaccine scandal has occurred, officials have vowed to investigate, tighten management and punish those responsible. That is, until the next scandal comes along.
In 2016, in a vaccine scandal that shocked the nation, a mother and a daughter were accused of masterminding a network of illegal sales of improperly stored or expired vaccines worth 570 million yuan across 20 provinces and municipalities since 2011. Later, both women were given lengthy jail sentences and all together over one hundred officials were punished.
At the time, Premier Li was quoted as saying the lessons were profound. As in his statement last Monday, he promised a thorough investigation.
Following the 2016 scandal, the central government reportedly approved tighter regulations for the management of all vaccines, including transport and storage.
Now comes the latest scandal. Without deep reflection on the causes and taking resolute action, rather than merely pledging high-pitched vows, another food or drug scandal is bound to happen. ■
Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper