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Reports Suggest Children Throughout China Likely Injected With Faulty Vaccines


We're going to hear now about the outrage in China after reports that hundreds of thousands of children throughout the country have likely been injected with faulty vaccines. As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, it's the latest in a long line of food and health scandals that has people questioning whether China's government is looking out for their safety.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: This was supposed to be a week of leisure and sightseeing in Shanghai for Mrs. Xiong and her 6-year-old daughter, who came here from their home province of Jiangxi. But that was before she heard the news that the very company responsible for faulty vaccines had made the vaccine her daughter was just injected with back home. Now she's spending her summer vacation nervous. Xiong only gives her surname because she's scared of the consequences of what she's about to do - criticize her country.

XIONG: (Through interpreter) I'll have to check to see what batch of vaccines my daughter was given when I get home. The government requires children to be vaccinated to enroll in school, but they don't allow imported vaccines. I feel helpless because we don't have a choice.

SCHMITZ: Last week, Chinese authorities discovered that hundreds of thousands of doses of at least two different vaccines - rabies and diphtheria and tetanus - were defective, all manufactured by the drug maker Changchun Changsheng, which means long life in Chinese. Five executives at the company are now under criminal investigation. China's Premier Li Keqiang says the episode has hit a new low, and he's vowing to investigate. Mrs. Xiong says this response is too little, too late.

XIONG: (Through interpreter) The government always makes big promises and yet delivers very little. I'll never trust domestic vaccines.

KENT KEDL: That is not the message that the government wants people to come away with.

SCHMITZ: Kent Kedl is senior partner at Control Risks in Shanghai. He says the timing of this scandal, just months after China's Communist Party changed the country's constitution to allow leader Xi Jinping to rule as long as he wants, is not good for the government.

KEDL: Xi Jinping basically stood up and said, listen; the party is in charge of everything, and we are here for the benefit of the people. And a story like this that comes out after that really tests the party's ability to control things like this.

SCHMITZ: Kedl says China's government forces hospitals to procure domestic drugs over foreign ones despite the fact that the quality of most domestic drugs isn't as good. He says this is part of Xi Jinping's Made in China 2025 campaign, a government push for Chinese companies to dominate global industries. And Emily Chan, the assistant dean of the medical faculty at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says China's global ambitions mean the impact of this vaccine scandal might be global, too.

EMILY CHAN: China are one of the largest exporters of vaccines around the world, so this issue goes just beyond China. I mean, the impact is actually huge.

SCHMITZ: But on the streets of Shanghai, people are concerned about their own children - people like Mrs. Wei, who's visiting with her 7-year-old daughter from Shandong, one of the hardest-hit provinces of this scandal.

WEI: (Through interpreter) Imported vaccines don't have full access to the domestic market because the government doesn't allow it. Only government-approved companies can make vaccines. It only pushes these companies to bribe officials.

SCHMITZ: Wei, who would only give her last name for fear of retribution, says thankfully she and her daughter live in a city that wasn't impacted by this scandal. But she says it doesn't matter. She's now beginning to question all the other vaccines her daughter's been injected with, too. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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