Vaccine Scandal Reveals China's Unbalanced Priorities
As far as scandals go, the recent revelation that 2 million doses of expired or spoiled vaccines with a value of 570 million yuan ($88 million) had been sold in 24 Chinese provinces since 2011 can easily qualify as one of the most shocking, even in a scandal-plagued country. According to official media, Chinese authorities have so far arrested more than 130 individuals suspected of participation in the vaccines sales and distribution ring. In addition, 29 companies, including three publicly-traded ones, were involved in the purchase and sale of the suspect vaccines that were supposed to provide protection against 25 diseases including meningitis, chicken pox, polio and rabies.
Certain aspects of this scandal stand out. For instance, the ringleader, a retired pharmacologist, was convicted of illegally selling vaccines as early as 2009 and, during her probation, restarted her illegal business with her daughter. Another noteworthy feature of their crime is that the pair were able to obtain large quantities of vaccines, which supposedly can only be bought and sold by licensed companies, not by individuals. Finally, even more disturbing than the crime itself is the long delay by Chinese authorities in informing the public of the danger posed by expired or spoiled vaccines distributed by the ring (according to Chinese press reports, the ringleader and her daughter were arrested in in early 2015).
However, the saga also bears important similarities with many other mega-scandals involving food and public safety in China over the past 15 years. In 2006, counterfeit drugs that had been approved by China's drug regulator were responsible for the deaths of an unknown number of people. In 2008, melamine-laced baby formula killed four babies and made nearly 40,000 more seriously ill.