China's state prosecutor has ordered a nationwide crackdown on profiteering and fake vaccines amid a mounting wave of fake COVID-19 vaccine cases, state media reported.
"The Supreme People’s Procuratorate has ordered state prosecutors at all levels of government to "act quickly and resolutely crack down on coronavirus vaccine crimes," state news agency Xinhua reported.
So far, the authorities have arrested 70 suspects in 21 cases linked to coronavirus vaccine fakes and racketeering, it said.
In some cases, fake vaccines had been made using saline to attract government subsidies for clinics offering emergency vaccinations to members of the public, it said.
It said one suspect surnamed Qiao had recruited friends and relatives from his hometown to manufacture the fakes in hotel rooms and rented apartments, to fill vials copied exactly from the design of genuine vaccine vials.
Qiao, a suspect surnamed Kong, and others had made and sold around 58,000 of the fake vaccines before their detention in November, it said.
Many were sold privately at hugely inflated prices and injected into the arms of customers in their own homes, or even in their cars, the report said.
Some of the fakes had made their way overseas, "tarnishing the image of the country," Xinhua said.
A businessman from the northern province of Hebei who gave only a surname, Guo, said the claim that some of the fakes had been taken out of China was worrying.
"Surely the likelihood that fake vaccines could get exported overseas is minuscule," Guo said. "There must be very strict testing and verification procedures in place."
He said it was more likely that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was laying the groundwork for plausible deniability of responsibility for any substandard vaccines exported overseas by Chinese pharmaceutical companies.
"They are putting a plausible explanation out there for any problems with Chinese vaccines overseas," Guo said.
Lu Jun, co-founder of health NGO the Beijing Yirenping Center, said the focus on criminal activity was a distraction from the genuine threat to people's health from shoddy, out-of-date, and incorrectly handled vaccines from legitimate sources.
"For example, there have been injuries caused by vaccine scandals, in Shanxi in 2007 and in Shandong in 2016," Lu said.
"But they were caused either by shoddy vaccines produced by regular manufacturers, or else by irregularities or illegal operations linked to government procurement and distribution processes," he said.
Lu said there were many more cases of harm to people from officially produced vaccines than had emerged in media reports.
'Fake and shoddy products'
A Chinese resident surnamed Cai said quality control issues are endemic in Chinese supply chains.
"Actually we see this problem occurring in almost every sector," Cai told RFA. "There will be fake and shoddy products being manufactured and sold in almost every sector as long as it is profitable to do this."
"It's hardly surprising that we are seeing fake Chinese vaccines appearing, given that vaccines are in short supply right now," he said.
Xinhua reported on Feb. 1 that Chinese police detained more than 80 people and confiscated more than 3,000 fake doses of COVID-19 vaccine, and that all fake doses in China had been tracked down.
It was unclear whether the arrests were the same as those referred to its Feb. 15 report.
The Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to CCP mouthpiece the People's Daily, cited a source close to a major Chinese vaccine producer as saying that some of the fakes may already have made their way overseas.
The arrests were part of a nationwide police operation that included Beijing, Shanghai, and the eastern province of Shandong, Xinhua said.
Reported by Qiao Long and Gigi Lee for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.