In China, Another Vaccine Scandal Rocks Consumer Confidence

In China, Another Vaccine Scandal Rocks Consumer Confidence
A nurse prepares a vaccination shot at a hospital in Rongan in southern China's Guangxi region on July 23, 2018. (AFP/Getty Images)
Frank Fang

Another vaccine scandal has erupted, adding to a series of recent incidents in China involving faulty vaccines.

The latest scandal centers around the Boao-Yinfeng Healthcare International Hospital, located in southern China’s Hainan island. Operated by private firm Yinfeng Biological Group, the hospital was found to have illegally vaccinated 38 people with a “9-valent HPV” vaccine since January 2018 without obtaining a proper vaccination license, according to an April 28 report by Chinese state-run media Xinhua, citing an announcement made by the health commission of the Hainan government.

Among the 38 people, 37 patients each paid 9,000 yuan ($1,337) for the vaccination, while a hospital employee got the shot for free, according to the Hainan government announcement on April 28. The health commission fined the hospital 8,000 yuan ($1,188), confiscated all earnings made from the 37 shots, and revoked the hospital’s operating license.

The health commission is currently investing the source of these “9-valent HPV” vaccines, according to the announcement.

Currently, Gardasil 9 is the only “9-valent HPV” vaccine available in the world that protects against nine types of the human papillomavirus (HPV), manufactured by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck. Untreated, HPV can cause cervical and vaginal cancer in women, and anal cancer and genital warts in men. The Merck vaccine may be given as two or three shots.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Gardasil 9 for the U.S. market in December 2014, the vaccine wasn’t made available in China until May 2018, after China’s drug regulator approved it, according to Chinese media Caixin.

The current scandal came to public attention on April 22, when a user on popular Chinese social media platform Weibo, named “Wang Xi Anna,” claimed in a post that the hospital was administering fake 9-valent HPV vaccines.

Wang later spoke to Chinese state-run radio station CNR, explaining that she had her first shot of the 9-valent HPV vaccine in January 2018, after hospital staff told her that the facility was a testing site that was making the HPV vaccine available ahead of the May 2018 approval by authorities.

Wang said that she began to have suspicions about the vaccine after she received a phone call from a police officer in coastal China’s Jiangsu Province in March. The police officer told her that the vaccine was a fake one manufactured at a factory in Siping City in northeastern China’s Jilin Province.

The police officer also informed Wang that the factory had a warehouse in Jiangsu, which supplied the fake vaccines to many parts of China. The officer also contacted other hospital patients who received the vaccine. It is unclear how the officer knew they had received the supposedly fake HPV vaccine.

Ms. Chen from Hainan, who also received the hospital’s vaccine, told CNR that she has since gone to another hospital for a health checkup. However, the hospital couldn’t tell her whether she had any immunity against HPV from the vaccine she received, or whether she would be susceptible to any health hazards.

The hospital, in an April 28 announcement published on its official website, blamed the illegal vaccination on a beauty parlor in Qingdao City in eastern China’s Shandong Province.

The hospital said that the beauty parlor, with which it had previously signed a cooperation agreement, had promoted and administered the HPV vaccines “of unknown origin” without its knowledge. The statement didn’t elaborate further, but said that the facility was cooperating with authorities in their investigation.

The Hainan government confirmed in its announcement that the hospital had illegally lent its medical aesthetics license to the Qingdao beauty parlor under a cooperation agreement signed in November 2017 that expired in July 2018. But authorities didn’t provide details about whether this beauty parlor was involved in procuring or administering the illegal vaccines.

Another woman who received the vaccine, Zheng Li (pseudonym), told state-run newspaper The Paper that she was skeptical of the hospital’s claim that it was unaware of the vaccines. When she received her first shot in March 2018, her vaccination card and receipt had the hospital’s stamp on it.

In 2018, a scandal rocked China after Chinese pharmaceutical company Changsheng Bio-technology was found to have shipped out more than 250,000 doses of a faulty DTaP vaccine (a combination vaccine for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus), affecting more than 200,000 children.
Mainland Chinese citizens have been known to travel to Hong Kong and Taiwan to receive certain vaccines, including Gardasil 9, due to their lack of confidence in the safety of Chinese vaccines.

On Weibo, Chinese netizens were outraged by the news of another vaccine scandal.

One netizen from Zhejiang Province wrote, “Can we strengthen [the country’s] regulations on vaccines? Can there be a harsher penalty for crimes related to vaccines?”

Several netizens expressed their shock at the small fine that the hospital had to pay, considering that people’s health could be at risk.

Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
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