Thousands of residents of the northwest Chinese city of Lanzhou have been diagnosed with brucellosis, a highly infectious bacterial disease after they were exposed to polluted air from a state pharmaceutical company late last year.
According to health authorities on Tuesday, 3,245 people have tested positive for Brucella bacteria antibodies out of 21,847 people tested so far in Lanzhou, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported.
Local health authorities announced on December 26 that the Lanzhou Biopharmaceutical Plant, a unit of the state-run China Animal Husbandry Industry, “used expired sanitizers while producing Brucella vaccines between July 24 and August 20” last year. “This resulted in the bacteria entering the factory’s exhaust and infecting people nearby,” officials said, according to Beijing-based news site Caixin Global.
“There are more than ten communities with a combined population of more than 10,000 located within one kilometer of the plant,” Caixin noted.
At least 210 employees of the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute, located just a few hundred meters from the plant, tested positive for Brucella bacteria antibodies. According to the state health commission assigned to investigate the incident, the presence of the antibodies in the test subjects was evidence that they had inhaled the contaminated air.
Following an investigation into the scandal, Chinese government officials revoked the plant’s license to manufacture Brucella vaccines and reprimanded eight of its senior managers, according to SCMP. The state health commission designated nearly a dozen local hospitals to provide free treatment to the thousands of locals affected by the contamination.
Brucellosis commonly occurs in livestock such as sheep, goats, and pigs. Humans may contract the disease through close contact with infected animal tissue or by ingesting unpasteurized dairy products from infected animals. Infection symptoms include recurring fever, joint pain, and fatigue. The disease can cause chronic health problems and damage reproductive health, though it is rarely deadly.
The brucellosis vaccine contamination in Lanzhou serves as the latest corruption scandal involving Chinese state-run pharmaceutical plants. The SCMP reported on Monday that the Chinese government was struggling to convince citizens to receive Chinese-made influenza vaccinations ahead of the upcoming flu season following a recent spate of vaccine scandals there.
Xu Liang, a Chinese retiree from Wuxi, told the newspaper he hesitated to get a Chinese-made flu shot.
“I don’t know how effective it is. And I doubt its quality. I remember there were scary reports of substandard vaccines years ago,” he explained, referring to the recent Changchun Changsheng Bio-technology scandals.
The Chinese vaccine maker “sold more than 250,000 DPT vaccines in Shandong province before tests in November 2017 revealed that some were not effective,” according to the report. Changchun Changsheng was fined 3.4 million yuan ($502,200) by a provincial regulator for knowingly selling the ineffective DPT vaccines, which immunize people against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. DPT vaccines are administered to babies as young as three months old in China.
In 2018, Changchun Changsheng was fined a record $1.3 billion for “fabricating records for a rabies vaccine for humans,” according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The Changchun Changsheng corruption scandals angered Chinese citizens, many of whom say their children were made sick or even paralyzed by the faulty vaccines. The outrage caused a rare string of protests in China, where the Communist Party normally quashes anti-government manifestations in public.
In July 2018, dozens of Chinese citizens gathered outside Beijing’s National Health Commission and National State Drug Administration buildings. Over two days, they demanded harsher punishments for the pharmaceutical executives and CCP officials who allowed the defective vaccines to be distributed to the public.
Another vaccine protest broke out six months later in January 2019. The parents of 145 children made sick from an expired polio vaccine gathered outside the Licheng government health center in Jinhu, Jiangsu province to express their frustration at the CCP. A video of the gathering appears to show an angry mob beating a government health official outside the building.
According to AFP’s report, published in June, “several other cases [of vaccine corruption] have been reported by Chinese media in the past year, including fake vaccines in a southern hospital and children getting shots for the wrong illness in northern Hebei province.” Despite the Chinese government’s ongoing struggle to safely administer relatively standard vaccines, the CCP insists that it will soon release an experimental Chinese coronavirus vaccine, whose rollout state media has been promoting for months.