145 babies given expired polio vaccines in Chinese city—and there could be more

Just months after a vaccine scandal made waves and undermined the public’s confidence in the country’s vaccine industry, the Chinese government is vowing to investigate another immunization misstep.

As of Jan. 9, 145 children have been confirmed to have received expired oral polio vaccine from a health center in Jinhu county of the Huai’an city, Jiangsu province, local government said in an announcement (Chinese) Friday.

The batch of vaccines under question reached the clinic on May 18, 2017, and carried an expiration date of Dec. 11, 2018. But the clinic used 21 vials of the immunization after that, according to the government.

The case first broke a week ago when a parent took to social media to publicize their child’s experience, local media reported. Then, more parents found the same problem after going through their children’s vaccination record.

Angry parents gathered Friday outside the county government office in a protest. Some participants later clashed with police officers. In a Saturday statement, Jinhu police said they had detained three men for inciting trouble, a potential criminal offense in China. 

So far, the government investigation has only implicated one vaccine batch at one local clinic, but some parents claim their vaccination records suggest similar breaches encompassing a wide range of vaccines—including BCG, chicken pox and more—dating back to as early as 2010.

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In its statement, the Jinhu government pointed to the possibility that the recorded vaccine batch might not match up with the actual batch used, especially in some older cases, as the Chinese government only started to require vaccination batch information registration in 2016. Before that, information recorded on batch number, manufacturer or even vaccine type might not match the actual vaccine used, the Jinhu government said. But officials there promised to get to the bottom of the matter with help from the provincial authorities.

Meanwhile, 17 Jinhu government officials have been put under investigation, or removed from the Communist Party and public posts over the scandal.

The exposé is another blow to already-low public confidence in China’s vaccine industry. It comes just a few months after Changchun Changsheng Life Sciences, one of the country’s largest vaccine makers, was found to have forged manufacturing data related to its rabies vaccine and provided nearly half a million faulty DPT vaccines to babies.

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As the Changsheng scandal erupted into a national outcry last summer, the Chinese government has sacked several top government officials, slapped a huge $1.3 billion fine on the company, detained its executives and started delisting the company from the Shenzhen Stock Exchange under a newly revised securities regulation.

China’s drug regulators proposed a new vaccine-specific law that’s now under review by the country’s congress. The legislation would impose more stringent supervision over the vaccine industry, tougher punishment for violations and more responsibilities for related government agencies.

The Jinhu scandal is also a poignant reminder of another high-profile vaccine scandal in 2016, when a mother-daughter team illegally sold millions of improperly stored vaccines across China. It was in the heat of that scandal that the Chinese government started to require vaccination batch information recording.