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Viral post inflames public anger over vaccine scandal in China

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A box of vials of a rabies vaccine made by Changsheng Biotechnology sits next to a sealed package of the same vaccines to be recalled at a local disease prevention centre in China's Anhui province.

Beijing

CHINA'S newest product-safety scare burst into the public consciousness when an obscure essay alleging corruption in the pharmaceutical industry become an Internet sensation, exposing widespread anger and distrust after a string of scandals.

The furore over alleged shady dealings by a major vaccine producer has shattered an already-fragile trust in regulators and illustrated the rising frustrations of China's increasingly sophisticated consumers.

News that pharmaceutical company Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology had fabricated records and been forced to stop manufacturing rabies vaccines broke more than a week ago. But it exploded on social media over the weekend, fuelled by a viral essay alleging decades of malfeasance by the company, including the bribery of officials to let products of low quality onto the market.

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The origin and veracity of the mysterious post remains unverified, but it touched off a cat-and-mouse game as China's aggressive censors scrambled to prevent its spread.

But the damage was done. Millions of angry users shared the essay and other information on product-safety problems in a rare public airing of a touchy national issue. The China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) said last week that the problematic rabies vaccine had not left Changsheng's factory, but that the company admitted it had shipped a separate sub-standard vaccine. That vaccine for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT) was found by regulators to fail quality standards - but the company said it sold 250,000 doses to Shandong province last year.

As the pressure mounted, further revelations have emerged. The authorities in the northern province of Hebei said on Monday that nearly 150,000 people had received sub-standard DPT vaccines made by another firm, Wuhan Institute of Biological Products. The problems have rekindled fears over domestically made medicines and driven worried parents online to swap information on obtaining imported vaccines.

A woman, waiting with her daughter at a pediatric clinic in Beijing on Tuesday and who gave only her surname as Zhou, said: "I don't trust the vaccines here anymore." She said she would rather pay for imported products than accept those offered free by the government.

The government has gone into damage control, with the CFDA saying there was "absolutely no need" for foreign vaccines because China already has a "comprehensive" system for ensuring quality. The authorities have announced investigations and vowed that heads would roll for any negligence. In a sign of the high-level unease, President Xi Jinping - on a trip to Africa - weighed in on Monday, calling the vaccine company's actions "vile in nature and shocking", state media reported.

One reason product safety is such an explosive issue is that children have been among the victims of the worst Chinese scandals of the last decade, including a massive 2008 scandal over milk and baby formula tainted by the chemical melamine, which gives the appearance of higher protein levels.

The adulteration killed six infants and left tens of thousands others hospitalised, rocking China's dairy sector and leading to a regulatory shake-up. "This time, it deals with babies, and the volume is a lot. That's why people are concerned with it," said Scarlett Pong, president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Hong Kong, where wealthier Chinese parents often travel to for access to foreign medicines. Experts say the Chinese authorities are gradually improving supervision, but the country's vastness and lack of openness means it will remain a long-term battle.

Ms Pong said: "Whoever comes up as a political leader in the future will have to fulfil the demands from the public. The world is much more open now, citizens know a lot of things."

The CFDA said late on Sunday that it had ordered all production stopped at Changchun Changsheng and police have opened a criminal investigation, detaining its chairman and four subordinates for investigation.

Jilin province, where the company is based, said Tuesday it also would open a corruption investigation into the government officials involved, but jaded consumers have heard it all before. An angry commentator on the Twitter-like Weibo microblogging platform said: "The problem is who is doing the investigation. If you're just investigating yourself, what kind of results will come out?"

Following a major vaccine scare in 2016, officials detained more than 200 people and promised to plug what Premier Li Keqiang described at the time as "many regulatory loopholes".

But some social media users this week have pointed sardonically to Sun Xianze, the official in charge of food safety during the 2008 milk scandal, who was later promoted to deputy director of the CFDA, with responsibility for drug safety, where he worked until February. AFP