By Mahmut Atanur
BEIJING (AA) – Chinese authorities have arrested at least 125 people in a scandal involving the illegal sales of around $88 million in substandard vaccines, according to state media Saturday.
The Supreme People's Procuratorate announced Friday that two of them were convicted earlier this week, while 37 additional suspects were under investigation for possible duty-related violations including abuse of power, bribery and dereliction of duty, the China Daily reported.
The health care scandal broke out in March following the arrest of a mother and daughter accused of selling expired or improperly stored vaccines.
The illegal trade reportedly involved 25 vaccines across 24 provinces since 2011, and more than 350 officials have reportedly already been penalized in the case by being demoted or removed from their positions.
The Procuratorate said Friday that medical personnel at township or community health centers made up the majority of those accused of abuse of power, for allegedly having purchased the vaccines from sellers who lacked proper certification.
Meanwhile, the majority of those suspected of dereliction of duty are heads of township health centers accused of turning “a blind eye” to staff purchasing the vaccines illegally.
After an executive meeting on the crackdown last month, presided over by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, a statement was released saying that investigations “exposed prominent problems such as inadequate quality supervision and management, delayed discovery and punishment of illegal selling, official nonfeasance and an immature risk management mechanism."
China has since introduced new regulations on vaccines under which violators will be blocked from the vaccine industry and face increased fines, while officials accused of complicity will have to resign.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical wholesale enterprises will no longer be authorized to trade in vaccines and a new system will be established to track supplies from production to use.
Official news agency Xinhua reported that an expert team which examined 19 batches of confiscated vaccines determined that their use would not result in safety risks.
Authorities believe that the illegal vaccines -- including those for more than 10 diseases -- were produced by licensed manufacturers, but were of substandard quality and transported or stored improperly.
According to police, the substandard vaccinations came from over 100 pharmaceutical suppliers -- both licensed and unlicensed -- and were sold at inflated prices to “illegal agents” and possibly local disease control and prevention centers.