The English word flu comes from the Italian “influenza”, meaning influence. In the medieval period it was thought that unfavourable celestial arrangements triggered outbreaks. Later the virus was given a longer name “influenza del freddo”, or influence of the cold, because most people fell sick in the winter.
But as the northern hemisphere prepares for this winter’s flu season it is neither the stars nor low temperatures that are worrying public health officials. It is the fact that China has produced less than half the usual number of flu vaccines.
To be sure, only around 2% of Chinese vaccinate against the illness, although demand is expected to be higher this year because of government awareness campaigns and the severity of the outbreak last year.
Even in late October the National Health Commission was telling medical staff to encourage people to get vaccinated and to set an example by getting the jab themselves.
The problem was the vaccine in question never showed up – at least not in sufficient amounts.
According to the country’s Centre for Disease Control, school age children and pensioners should be able to receive the jab for free. However, in Beijing, the vaccine for young children and working-age adults ran out in four days. In Shanghai clinics also complained that stocks were so low as to be negligible.
On October 28 another government agency the China Food and Drug Administration (CDFA) confirmed that the vaccine would be in short supply this year, saying it had approved 60% fewer batches than at the same time last year.
Yet the problem is not about getting the CDFA’s final approval. Quite simply it’s because not enough vaccines were manufactured. As WiC readers will remember, China was rocked by a vaccine scandal this summer when a major biotech company Changchun Changsheng was found to have faked manufacturing certificates and used out of date material in its production of inoculations against rabies and DPT (diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus).
The company was fined Rmb9.1 billion ($1.3 billion) and lost its production licence. But the disgraced vaccine maker also happened to produce about 3.58 million jabs, or 10% of the country’s flu vaccines last year. It was also one of only two companies that had been permitted to produce the newer tetravalent flu vaccine, one that protects against four strains of flu rather than the old three-strain type. (Last year only the four-strain type offered effective protection because the three-strain type did not vaccinate against the virus that was ultimately predominant.)
China had about 10 manufacturers licenced to make the vaccine. In theory they could have filedl the gap that Changsheng’s problems have created. In practice, however, the opposite happened. The Shanghai Institute of Biological Products, for one, stopped making any vaccines this year. Its counterpart Sinovac Biotech, meanwhile, dumped all its available stock. Between them they produced 5.87 million of the 27 million doses of anti-flu vaccine used in China 2017. According to China Securities Journal, biotech firms have produced 15 million less flu vaccines ahead of this flu season, or 50% fewer than what they produced in 2017.
In order to revive the public’s confidence in domestically made vaccines – following the Changsheng scandal – the State Council has pledged to overhaul vaccine production. For instance, a set of new laws was proposed this month to impose tougher punishments for that participate in illegal practices, such as the fabrication of data, or which impede investigations. The more stringent oversight, however, is also believed to have contributed to the disruption in production levels this year.
The Apple Daily thinks more affluent mainlanders may flock to Hong Kong for ‘trusted’ flu vaccinations instead – mirroring the way they have emptied the city’s shelves of infant formula in recent years after being spooked by the infamous tainted-milk scandal in 2008.
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