In China, Consumer Confidence in Domestic Vaccines Remains Low as Parents Look Elsewhere for Safe Vaccines

By Frank Fang

In China, consumer confidence in domestically produced vaccines shows no sign of rebounding, after another incident involving possibly faulty vaccines came to light before being quickly rebuffed by local authorities as a false alarm.

On Aug. 3, an online article titled “The Vicious Vaccine! Many Children Inoculated with Expired Vaccines in Shangluo, Shaanxi. And the Number Is Increasing” began circulating on Chinese social media.

According to the article, one parent discovered that the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine his child received on March 1 was six months past its expiration date. The MMR vaccine was manufactured by Shanghai Institute of Biological Products, a private company founded in 1993.

Other parents in Shangluo, a city in northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province, soon discovered that since 2015, their children were inoculated with expired encephalitis B vaccine, meningococcal vaccine, and DTap vaccine (immunity against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus) manufactured by other domestic drug companies. One family said their child had received an expired DTap vaccine that was manufactured by Changchun Changsheng.

Last month, public uproar prompted Chinese authorities to investigate Changchun Changsheng and its parent, Changsheng Bio-technology, for producing substandard vaccines and failing to recall their products in time. Shandong Province in eastern China received most of the substandard vaccines—totaling over 250,000 doses of the faulty DTap vaccine.

Weeks later, another company, Wuhan Institute of Biological Products—a subsidiary run by the state-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group—was swept up in the scandal, after a faulty TDap vaccine from Wuhan was used to inoculate more than 143,000 children in three cities in northern China’s Hebei Province.

On Aug. 5, the Shangluo municipal government issued a statement, saying that after its own investigation into inoculation records and vaccine storage data, both the encephalitis B vaccine and meningococcal vaccine were still within their expiration dates, according to state-run news site China News. The authorities also said neither the MMR and DTap vaccine expired; their batch numbers were actually incorrectly recorded.

On Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, many netizens expressed doubts that the Shangluo government was telling the truth. One netizen with the moniker “LOVEcxh-” from southern China’s Guangdong Province wrote: “Who can we trust now? As parents, we are very disappointed.”

Hong Kong and Taiwan

The recent scandal has prompted many Chinese parents to look for safe vaccines beyond mainland Chinese borders—in Hong Kong, and in Taiwan. A search on the Chinese search engine Baidu reveals that many people have shared their experiences on how to receive vaccines in both places.

One article from Baidu explains the pros and cons of getting vaccines from government-run maternal and child health centers versus private clinics in Hong Kong. For example, the article explains that 5-in-1 or 6-in-1 vaccines (a combination vaccine with five or six individual vaccines) might be more readily available at private clinics, which would be more convenient for traveling Chinese parents.

The article also lists medical documents that Chinese parents must bring with them, advising parents to make a reservation prior to making the trip to Hong Kong health centers or clinics.

Mainland Chinese traveling to Taiwan to obtain safe vaccines is not a recent phenomenon. According to an Aug. 1 report by Taiwanese broadcaster SET News, mainland Chinese have been coming to the island country in recent years to receive Gardasil 9, an HPV vaccine (immunity against a form of cervical cancer) made by U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck.

While Gardasil 9 was made available to the public in Taiwan after passing regulatory approval in June 2016, the same vaccine only recently gained China’s regulatory approval in May.

Since Gardasil requires three shots in six months, many mainland Chinese, after getting their first shot in Taiwan, take home with them the remaining two doses in a portable cooler. They then search for a doctor who will administer the remaining doses.

The concern about vaccines in China has sparked fear in Hong Kong that mainland Chinese would take up the vaccine supply in the special administrative region, leaving local children without vaccines. The current fear is rooted in a 2008 food-safety scandal in China, when mainland Chinese brands of infant formula were tainted with toxic melamine, prompting Chinese parents to travel to Hong Kong to buy foreign imported brands. They quickly emptied store shelves.

To ward off panic among worried Hong Kong parents, Pierre Chan, who represents the medical functional constituency in the Hong Kong Legislative Council, asserts that the Hong Kong Department of Health would make sure there is an adequate vaccine supply, according to a July 23 report by Hong Kong media Orange News.

 
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