社论 | “兰州布病事件”法律追责不可少 Editorial: Brucellosis Outbreak Offers an Opportunity to Promote Rule of Law (Bilingual)
本刊第36期封面文章《兰州病人》发表次日，兰州市卫健委通报了布鲁氏菌抗体阳性事件处置情况，并就下一阶段的工作作出说明。通报承诺将督促事件肇事方兰州生物药厂开展补偿赔偿工作。这一及时回应舆情的姿态值得肯定。通报还提道，兰州生物药厂已对8名责任人做出“严肃处理”。然而，这仅限于党纪和行政处分，该厂及相关责任人是否会受到法律制裁，司法部门是否已介入，迄今尚未见公开信息。处置这一事件，法律追责不可少。惟有如此，才能让责任方为其行为付出应有代价，也才能对其他企业起到警示作用；倘若追责得力，这一事件还将促进中国公共卫生领域的法治建设。 这一事件发生已一年。2019年七八月间，中牧股份旗下兰州生物药厂在兽用布鲁氏菌疫苗生产过程中使用过期消毒剂，致使生产发酵罐废气排放灭菌不彻底。兰州官方确认了3245名阳性感染者，肯定还有其他人生活在未知的恐惧中。感染者中，多数人如今不知如何救治，有些人将在疼痛疲乏折磨中度过余生。这种俗称“懒汉病”的怪病，使他们丧失劳动能力，甚至残疾，家庭陷入灭顶之灾，事件的肇事者理当为此承担责任，否则，法律的正义何以伸张？ 兰州布病事件本质上是一次公共卫生事故。不过，现行法律法规对此类事件的责任追究缺乏统一明确的规定，而是分别处于环保、药品、危险品管理等法律法规中。突发公共卫生事件应急条例等关于法律责任的规定，多指向地方政府及其卫生行政部门、医疗卫生机构；传染病防治法、突发公共卫生事件应急条例更侧重于如何应对事件。我们期待，能以处置此次事件为契机，探索公共卫生领域统一、明晰的追责办法。
The day after this magazine published our cover story about the infection of thousands of people with brucellosis in Lanzhou, Northwest China’s Gansu province, the city’s health commission issued a notice about the incident and outlined the next stage of work. The notice also promised to urge the Lanzhou Biopharmaceutical Plant, the company responsible for the incident, to pay compensation.
This gesture of responding to the public in a timely manner deserves recognition. The notice also mentioned that the plant has “seriously dealt with” the eight people responsible for the incident. However, there has been no announcement about whether they and the factory will be punished by the law and whether the judicial department has stepped in.
To deal with this incident, legal accountability is essential — only then can those responsible pay the price for their actions. Legal action will also be a warning to other companies and promote the rule of law in China’s public health sector.
One year has passed since this incident occurred. In July and August 2019, the plant, a subsidiary of China Animal Husbandry Industry Co. Ltd., used expired disinfectant in the production of brucellosis vaccines for veterinary use, resulting in inadequate sterilization of waste gas emissions from fermentation tanks.
Lanzhou officials have confirmed 3,245 positive infections, and there must be others living in fear of the unknown. Most of the infected people do not know how to treat the disease, and many will spend the rest of their lives living with pain and fatigue. Brucellosis can incapacitate and even disable those it afflicts. For the families, it is a devastating situation. The perpetrators of the incident must take responsibility. Otherwise, how can justice be done?
Although the Lanzhou brucellosis outbreak is essentially a public health incident, China’s current laws and regulations lack clear, uniform guidelines on who should be accountable. Instead, we have to consult our laws on environmental protection, drugs and the handling of dangerous goods.
That’s because rules like our regulations for responding to public health emergencies mainly deal with the role of local governments and their health institutions. Meanwhile, our laws on preventing and controlling infectious diseases focus more on how to respond to incidents instead of who is to blame. This incident is therefore an opportunity to address these problems.
Of course, we can still apply legal accountability for the Lanzhou outbreak in accordance with current laws and regulations. An amendment to China’s criminal law has lowered the threshold of conviction for those who pollute the environment. In recent years, a top-down approach to environmental protection has exposed many polluting companies, especially pharmaceutical firms. They have been repeatedly banned, but some continue to flout the law.
That’s because the cost of breaking the law is far lower than the profits to be made from doing so, and local governments sometimes even shelter such firms. Despite this, some staff at unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies have received criminal penalties for their actions.
Legal evidence must determine the actions of Lanzhou Biopharmaceutical and the responsibilities the enterprise and its staff should take. This matter is of national concern, and local governments should strictly enforce the law.
This incident gives us a lot to think about. Chinese law has strict requirements for vaccine production. Regulations for ensuring the quality of veterinary drugs contain detailed restrictions on production equipment, protective measures and the use of disinfectants.
Even so, large-scale pollution events can still occur, with serious consequences. When dealing with the aftermath, the relevant government departments must reflect deeply, uncover regulatory loopholes and supervisory weaknesses, and then strengthen supervision in a targeted manner.
It is worth noting that when the plant used the expired disinfectants, the central environmental protection inspection team was stationed in Gansu. The difficulties of monitoring environmental protection are therefore evident.
Our most pressing task is to arrange compensation as soon as possible, something that is also an integral part of legal accountability. According to the official notice, compensation will be administered gradually from October, and all sectors hope that it can be rolled out as soon as possible.
We mustn’t artificially set the threshold for compensation too high or screen applicants for their payments too tightly. It is the right of the victims to expect compensation standards to strictly follow the law. Compensation should also not be limited to the cost of treatment; we must comprehensively assess people based on their future difficulties in life.
In short, we must be pragmatic. It would be best to hand over the process to an independent medical appraisal agency to avoid excessive local government interference. Additionally, securities regulators must examine China Animal Husbandry, a listed company that did not perform well when disclosing this incident.
We can also learn from the experiences of others. The United States, Europe, Japan and other countries have given us examples of the importance of extensive public participation and strict legal punishments for environmental and public health violations.
The prerequisite for public participation is to establish a specific mechanism for lots of people to join in. Accordingly, businesses should also improve information transparency. In areas with relatively comprehensive governance like the U.S., Europe and Japan, companies that violate safety regulations and cause serious environmental pollution not only face huge fines, but those responsible may also face severe penalties under criminal law, the enforcement of which is unified and strict.
Illegal activities thereby carry huge costs that discourage tricksters and force companies to improve their internal management and control standards. Even if we have detailed guidelines and operating norms at the systemic level, they will be toothless without real deterrents.
China’s achievements fighting its coronavirus epidemic came from valuing the supremacy of the people and human life. Lanzhou’s brucellosis outbreak was unfortunate and catastrophic. We expect that the handling of this incident will also show similar respect for life.
For Gansu and Lanzhou, whose economic development is relatively lagging, there is no need to worry that legal accountability will scare away investors. On the contrary, handling this incident strictly in accordance with the law will improve the business environment.
For China, which is determined to improve its national governance capabilities, the aftermath of the outbreak provides a different opportunity: a chance to reach a new milestone in implementing the rule of law.
The Chinese version of this article was published in Caixin Weekly on Sept. 21, 2020, and is only available for Caixin Global’s app users. To unlock more bilingual articles, download the Caixin app.
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