Chinese police have detained 37 people in a widening scandal over illegal vaccine sales, an official news agency reported, a case Premier Li Keqiang said revealed glaring holes in the regulation of the world's second-largest medicine market.
Police made the arrests in Shandong, the eastern province at the center of the scandal, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Wednesday. The arrests were made after the case, involving nearly $90 million worth of illegal vaccines, erupted over the past week.
The scandal, which has stirred angry debate in China, casts a shadow over Beijing's ambitions to bolster its domestic drug market and underlines the challenge it faces to regulate a widespread and fragmented medicine supply chain.
The issue of regulation, from food and drugs to online sales, has become increasingly contentious in China as it looks to cast off a poor reputation for quality and safety. However, regulators have pointed to a lack of resources and personnel to adequately regulate their sectors.
"This vaccine safety case has drawn close attention, and shows there are many gaps in terms of regulation," Premier Li said in a statement on the central government's website.
Li said authorities should improve the regulatory system surrounding vaccine production and distribution and that any dereliction of duty would not be tolerated.
China's health ministry, cited by Xinhua, said it had not yet found any spike in abnormal reactions to vaccinations. The vaccines, which include ones against meningitis, rabies and other illnesses, are suspected of being sold in dozens of provinces around China since 2011.
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Angry parents voiced their concerns online. One mother said she wanted to take her child out of China to escape "poisoned milk, gutter oil and ineffective vaccines".
"It seems every day we are being swindled with something ... and no-one is coming to sort it out," she wrote on China's popular Sina Weibo, using the handle "Sunziyue".
Police said a mother and daughter in Shandong had illegally bought vaccines from traders and sold them on to hundreds of re-sellers around the country, according to a notice from the Shandong Public Security Department.
Shandong Zhaoxin Bio-tech Co, one of three pharmaceutical firms being probed, had also been ordered to halt operations and had a license revoked, Xinhua said. The company declined to comment when contacted by Reuters on Wednesday.
Xinhua said the case would be overseen by China's top court.