Chinese parents told vaccines 'generally safe' after scandals

Chinese parents have been urged to have confidence in domestically produced vaccines.

The head of China's largest influenza vaccine supplier has urged mainland parents not to rush to Hong Kong for shots, claiming they might not be as safe as people expect.

An Kang, a National People's Congress deputy and chairman of Hualan Biological Engineering - which supplied 80 per cent of flu vaccines on the mainland last winter - said there was no significant difference between domestic products and overseas brands.

Jiao Hong, head of the National Medical Products Administration, China's vaccine regulator, also moved to restore confidence in domestic vaccines which, she said, were "generally safe".

Jiao told reporters, on the sidelines of the NPC, that a law had been drafted which would require companies to build a sound quality management system, a product tracking system, as well as risk reporting mechanisms.

iao Hong, head of China’s National Medical Product Administration, said a new law would improve regulation of the country’s vaccine producers, at a press conference on the sidelines of the National People's Congress in Beijing.Photo: South China Morning Post

It would also improve the lot release mechanism - a process for the inspection and approval of vaccine products as safe and effective for use - by adding more site checks, Jiao said.

The Chinese public's confidence in domestic vaccines hit rock bottom last year when Changchun Changsheng Bio-technology, one of the country's biggest vaccine makers, was found to have systematically manipulated data and produced hundreds of thousands of substandard DPT vaccines that were given to hundreds of thousands of babies.

Some 80 government officials were punished in the wake of the scandal and a number of top officials lost their jobs, including a vice-governor in Jilin province and the administration's head Bi Jingquan.

There were also reports that children in Hebei and Jiangsu provinces were last year given expired vaccines.

Many parents have been flocking to Hong Kong, Taiwan and even Japan for vaccine shots, ever since a previous vaccine scandal in 2016 which revealed that 570 million yuan (S$115 million) of improperly stored or expired vaccines had been illegally sold across China for years.

"Going to Hong Kong for vaccination is the last thing that needs to be trumpeted about," An said.

"You don't know exactly whether the vaccines there are of good quality or not. There have been cases of foreign brands failing tests and foreign brands are not necessarily better than domestic ones," he said.

An pointed to a case last year when French manufacturer Sanofi Pasterur recalled four batches of influenza vaccines from China in the 2017-18 flu season because their effectiveness was impaired.

"Domestically produced vaccines have no significant difference with foreign products in terms of key indicators," An said.

"I understand some people have higher expectations for vaccines as they become more affluent. It's their belief that foreign brands must be better than Chinese ones, but it's not necessarily true," he said.

An said mainland parents were losing perspective and focusing on trivial concerns.

"There are nearly 20 million babies born each year. It's impossible to rely for their vaccination on foreign products," An said, adding that no foreign suppliers could help with influenza vaccine supply when called on by the authorities to reduce the flu shots shortage of the past winter season.

An said his one-year old granddaughter had never received any foreign vaccines. Some might choose foreign combination vaccines to reduce the number of shots, but the price was hundreds of yuan while domestic products were free in the national vaccination programme, he said.

An's remarks echoed Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, who said last month that the quality of domestic vaccines was good and he had every confidence in domestic products.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post