Scattered reports from around China over the years of mysterious deaths of children after being vaccinated suddenly took on a sinister new significance recently after a large smuggling ring dealing in adulterated inoculants was broken up.
The scandal has focused renewed attention, and anger, at endemic corruption and regulatory oversight in China. These are common themes of complaint among Chinese, though in this case they have been expressed with uncommon fury, and by individuals who rarely stick their necks out.
Food and drug authorities in eastern China said that the illicit vaccine business they busted had involved over 300 individuals in 24 provinces, over 2 million vaccinations, and 570 million yuan ($88 million). Authorities are charging a mother and daughter as chief culprits in the ring; they were detained last year in Shandong Province.
The women did not have proper refrigeration facilities for the vaccines, which according to state media were the kinds used to treat rabies, polio, hepatitis A, and other diseases.
Potentially compromised vaccines can cause disability and death when used, state media reported. A 4-year-old in southern China died days after being injected with meningococcal and polio vaccines. In a similar case reported this January, multiple police officers seized a dead toddler from the arms of his grieving parents.
The mother, surnamed Pang, is a 47-year-old pharmacist, and her daughter, Ms. Sun, is a recent medical school graduate. They are being charged with operating an unlicensed business that sold bulk vaccines for adults and children since 2010, Chinese online news outlet Sohu reported.
Pang and Sun are awaiting trial and face a possible death sentence for their crimes. About 40 people have been arrested so far. No estimates are out on how many people were affected by the tainted vaccines.
Outrage and Censorship
As with the infamous milk powder scandal of 2003, which affected hundreds of thousands of families and caused massive public uproar, Chinese netizens roundly condemned both the immediate perpetrators as well as the official regulation system.
“This is such a huge case and not a single regulatory official has come out to apologize, not a single one has resigned…” said one user, whose post was translated by the BBC. “This system, which doesn’t care whether ordinary citizens live or die, makes one’s soul tired.”
“Twenty-four provinces, 5 years already, and how many children!” another user said, also translated by the BBC. “It’s been nearly a year and then they reveal this! Isn’t this genocide?”
Even the famous actress Zhang Ziyi, who appeared in internationally popular films such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” came out to lament the scandal on Sina Weibo, a major Chinese social media platform: “I’ve spoken up on my Weibo numerous times. There are so many cases of spoiled vaccines, where is the national regulatory system? Why are there so many similar cases coming out, with nothing done to stop it?”
The actress said that she had taken her baby daughter to the United States for shots.
While authorities released more specific information about what types of vaccines were affected and promised to punish those responsible, China Digital Times, a website that frequently posts information about censorship in China, translated details of media instructions given by the Communist Party that had been leaked online.
The instructions told news workers to avoid “hyping” the vaccine scandal or reprinting an article published in Peng Pai, a major semi-official news site based in Shanghai.
In the case of the toddler who died in southern China’s Guangdong Province earlier this month, authorities were quick to claim that the child’s death had nothing to do with the Shandong scandal, while admitting that the investigation was incomplete.
“If the exact cause is still being probed, how can you already say that it has nothing to do with the problematic vaccines?” a skeptical user said. “You’re tying yourself up in knots.”
Microbloggers noted that despite the state’s claims that it would investigate the scandal and punish the guilty, real justice has often been absent.
“People are now enraged by the use of expired vaccines in China. However, very few still remember that lawyer Tang Jingling devoted himself to assisting victims of toxic vaccines as early as a decade ago,” wrote Zhou Fengsuo, a democracy activist, on Twitter. “In the end, parents of victimized children were detained and Tang was sentenced to imprisonment for his nonviolent legal work. Despite this, the case never drew the public attention that it deserved, and the whole evil system continues to create new victims.”
Or as another Chinese comment on Twitter put it: “The vaccine scandal has finally pushed some in my friendship circle to criticize the regime and call for officials to be held accountable. These friends used to care only about delicious food, going on tours, and overseas shopping. This again proves the statement that ‘you only love this government because you haven’t yet been harmed by it.'”