BEIJING — A crackdown on expired and improperly stored vaccines has netted 130 suspects and more than 20,000 doses of suspect medications, Chinese police said, in the latest scandal to pummel confidence in the safety of the country’s food and drug supply.
A news release Friday said investigators have opened 69 separate cases and that a joint taskforce from the Public Security Ministry, Food and Drug Administration, and the National Health and Family Planning Commission was screening vaccines on the market and tracing distribution chains.
All of the suspect doses were produced under proper procedures and did not contain impurities, the task force said in the news release aimed at calming fears that the vaccines could have spread other diseases. However, vaccines that are past their use-by dates or improperly refrigerated can easily lose their potency and cause adverse reactions and should be destroyed.
“The initial investigation and evidence collection has already produced partial progress and a portion of the suspects have already been sent for indictment,” the statement said. Most would be charged with illegal business operations, it said.
China has struggled to ensure food and drug safety, amid widespread counterfeiting and lax enforcement. Past safety scares have involved phony infant formula discovered to be nothing but starch and bogus vaccines containing only saline solution.
Foreign residents and wealthy Chinese have long opted for imported vaccines, while safety fears have created a huge market for imported pharmaceuticals, baby formula and health care and beauty products.
The latest scandal broke last month with the detentions of a woman surnamed Pang and her daughter who are believed to have sold nearly $100 million worth of the suspect products nationwide from their base in the eastern province of Shandong since 2011.
Pang and her daughter bought 25 types of vaccines from dozens of licensed and unlicensed pharmaceutical sales agents, then sold them at a profit to illegal distributors and even government health centers, according to unidentified Shandong police officials quoted by state media.
The vaccines involved fell into China’s second category of voluntary immunizations for rabies, Hepatitis B and other diseases rather than those required for all children.
Underscoring public concerns about food and drug safety, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang issued orders this week for government administrations to work together to investigate the scandal. Government officials found guilty of negligence should be held to account, he said.
The China office of the World Health Organization said it was ready to provide support to Chinese health authorities.