Caixin
Aug 17, 2018 08:23 PM
SOCIETY & CULTURE

Officials Fall as Vaccine Scandal Widens

A Jilin province-based company has been found to have sold almost half a million substandard vaccines. Photo: VCG
A Jilin province-based company has been found to have sold almost half a million substandard vaccines. Photo: VCG

China’s ruling Communist Party has forced out several senior officials in connection with a widening vaccine scandal, highlighting the critical need for reform in the country’s pharmaceutical industry.

The firings came directly from the Politburo’s Standing Committee — China’s top decision-making body, composed of seven powerful men.

The casualties include Jin Yuhui, vice governor of Jilin province in China’s northeast, who had overseen supervision of the food and drug industry in the region since April.

Jin’s predecessor, Li Jinxiu, vice head of an advisory body to the Jilin government, was also ordered to resign.

Notably, Bi Jingquan, party chief of China’s market regulator, was discharged for dereliction of duty. Prior to his promotion in March at the State Administration for Market Supervision, he was the director of the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA).

Though the public may approve of the punishments, some industry leaders and analysts see the downfall of senior officials, particularly Bi, as raising uncertainty over urgent reform of the scandal-plagued industry.

Bi himself was seen as a reformer within an otherwise corrupt and opaque sector.

When he took the helm of the CFDA in 2015, he prioritized the expeditious licensing of new drugs to tackle the huge backlog of applications and lack of efficiency in approval procedures.

Under Bi, the agency took a two-pronged approach to improve patient access to medicines, according to Jia Ping, a part-time professor with St. Mary’s University’s School of Law in San Antonio, Texas. For generic drugs, the agency required drugmakers to provide proof of both quality and efficacy. At the same time, it supported licensing more foreign-made drugs in China as long as they were proven to be clinically safe and effective, Jia said.

“China’s pharmaceutical industry is on the eve of fundamental change, because of the efforts under Bi,” said Jia, who specializes in China’s drug industry.

Despite his downfall, pharmaceutical insiders recognized the reforms Bi attempted to push forward, said a head of a unit overseeing policies with a multinational drugmaker, who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to comment on the developments. Continued reforms at the agency would not stall after Bi’s resignation, he said.

The punishment of the officials comes as China’s vaccine scandal widened in recent days. Initially, government inspectors found that Jilin-based company Changchun Changsheng Life Sciences Ltd. had produced and sold 250,000 doses of poor-quality vaccines for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT), a group of bacterial diseases.

Eighteen Changchun Changsheng employees, including its president, were arrested on July 29.

But this week, investigators dispatched by the State Council, China’s cabinet, say an additional 247,200 substandard units were sold.

Changchun Changsheng itself was previously ordered to stop making its rabies vaccine after it was found to have tampered with production data.

Investigators attributed the lapses to disregard of laws and industry standards as well as attempts to maximize profits, according to minutes from the high-level meeting Thursday.

The party body also blamed negligent local governments and industry regulators for the problem.

The party’s top anti-corruption bodies are investigating Wu Zhen, a former director of the CFDA who oversaw licensing and supervision of drugs, for alleged violation of party discipline or corruption, according to the document.

Another 35 lower-level officials will be held responsible for the vaccine scandal, according to the Standing Committee.

Contact reporter Li Rongde (rongdeli@caixin.com)

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