China, in typical fashion, arrests dozens as drug oversight draws attention

Premier Li Keqiang

In a typical response to publicity that its pharma supply chain has been breached, China has rounded up dozens of suspects as it investigates an operation said to have illegally sold vaccines that may not have been safely stored or shipped.

Citing China's official news agency, Xinhua, Reuters reports that authorities arrested 37 people in the crackdown. The report said the arrests were made after Premier Li Keqiang called for a complete investigation but that it wasn't clear that everyone picked up was tied to the operation that reportedly sold $88 million worth of vaccines over 5 years.

Authorities arrested a mother and daughter team last week that reportedly led the operation that bought products from legitimate Chinese producers and sold them in dozens of provinces outside of approved channels. The group reportedly sold vaccines against meningitis, rabies and other illnesses, Reuters reports. The news service said authorities are investigating three companies, including Shandong Zhaoxin Bio-tech, which previously had its manufacturing certificate revoked.

Reports of the arrests have stirred anger among citizens who said there was no way of knowing whether the vaccines their children are taking are safe or effective, Reuters said. The case was also a reminder of the difficulties the country has had trying to prevent illegal operations in the sprawling country. Medical officials have indicated the vaccines probably are not dangerous, but there are questions about their effectiveness because they may not have been stored at proper temperatures.

China has been beefing up its drug and food safety apparatus for several years after being embarrassed internationally over a number of cases where tainted products showed up in China or were shipped to other countries. It is pretty common for authorities to respond with a police sweep that nabs lots of people.

Some years back, when it was learned that some operations were selling chromium-tainted drug capsules, authorities reported they had detained 45 people, arrested 9 people and closed 80 illegal production operations and seized 77 million contaminated capsules. A couple of years later, they reported breaking up a couple of gangs making counterfeit cold medicines, arresting about 75 people. At the time, China was offering a reward of nearly $50,000 to people who reported drug counterfeiters to authorities.

In 2008, the FDA woke up to the dangers posed by China's burgeoning, but lightly regulated, drug ingredient industry when heparin contaminated with oversulfated chondroitin sulfate, a cheap filler product that saves money but can be deadly to patients, was tied to the deaths of 80 patients in the U.S. The U.S. has some FDA inspectors embedded in the country but is having difficulty getting authorities to allow it to add to its operations there.

- read the Reuters story