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A health scandal in China has seen dozens of officials sacked or disciplined because of problems with vaccines, generated protests from angry parents, and led anxious mainland residents to book trips to Hong Kong to inoculate their infants.

The mayor of Changchun, the city that is home to the biotechnology company in the middle of the vaccine scandal, resigned, Chinese state media reported.

The resignation of Mayor Liu Changlong came as a government investigation examines the China Food and Drug Administration and other agencies blamed for the crisis.

The Changchun-based company, Changsheng Biotechnology, has been accused of producing nearly half a million ineffective vaccines for children.

The mayor’s resignation was reported by the China state-owned People’s Daily, which said it was based on a decision by the national government and had been accepted by the standing committee of the Changchun’s People’s Congress.

More than 40 officials, including several from China’s food and drug regulators, have been punished or dismissed over the crisis, which has shaken confidence in an industry struggling to hold its own against drug production in Western countries and India.

The scandal has exposed lax standards and corruption common in China’s drug manufacturing sectors, as some companies put profit above the health of consumers, and officials responsible for enforcement tend to look the other way.

Changsheng Biotechnology, which is in Jilin province in northeast China, is a major drug manufacturer, and one of the largest producers of rabies and chickenpox vaccines.

The scandal initially emerged in November last year when the national drug regulation authority found that vaccines produced by Changsheng Biotechnology and a second company, Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, designed to protect children against diphtheria, whooping cough (pertussis) and tetanus (DPT), were not potent enough.

Later, drug regulators checked drug production at Changsheng Biotechnology and discovered that the company had used expired materials and falsified inspection records and production dates for rabies vaccinations.

The government also announced stiff penalties against the company for its sales of ineffective DPT vaccines.

Police arrested 18 Changsheng Biotechnology officials, including chairwoman Gao Junfang, known as China’s “vaccine queen”, whose fortune was estimated by Forbes at US$1bil (RM4.14bil) in 2016.

A third company, Zhejiang Huahai Pharmaceutical, recently issued a worldwide recall for an ingredient used in a heart medicine, valsartan, because thousands of batches were found to contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical.

The vaccination scandal sparked public anger over authorities’ failure to control food and drug standards despite a series of similar issues, many involving the sale of expired vaccines.

Many people vented their anger on Chinese social media, often to see comments removed by official censors.

“If the vaccine scandal happened in Japan, the Minister of Public Health Service would commit suicide. If it happened in the United States, the responsible officials would resign and the company would go bankrupt directly. If it happened in Thailand, the responsible party would be sentenced to the death penalty. However, in China, people only condemn it on social media and then the comments are promptly deleted,” read a comment on Chinese social media in late August 2018.

“If you can’t promise the safety of vaccines, how dare you encourage people to have more kids?” read another comment, referring to recent efforts by authorities to encourage parents to have two children instead of one after the end of a family policy that ran from 1979 to 2016.

The scandals have not only damaged the trust consumers have in Chinese vaccines, but also tainted the country’s global reputation as a drug manufacturer.

A toxic food and medicine scandal occurred 10 years ago when formula tainted with melamine killed six babies and sickened at least 53,000 infants. Chinese parents still clamour to buy infant formula overseas, particularly from Australia.

In 2016, China authorities admitted that two million expired vaccines, stored incorrectly in a hot room, had been sold around the country.

Two hundred people were arrested and nearly 400 government officials were punished as authorities vowed to clean up the industry.

In a vaccine scandal in 2015, two babies in Henan province died after they and hundreds of other babies received expired vaccines.

In 2010, a Beijing newspaper reported that four children died and 78 were sickened because of bad vaccines given to them in 2007 and 2008.

The problem of faked documentation has affected China’s reputation in other fields.

More than 400 Chinese scientists were exposed last year for faking peer reviews and data in scientific papers. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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