TAIPEI – Chinese police have arrested more than 80 suspected members of a criminal group that was manufacturing and selling fake COVID-19 vaccines, including to other countries.
Police in Beijing and in Jiangsu and Shandong provinces broke up the group led by a suspect surnamed Kong that was producing the fake vaccines, which consisted of a simple saline solution, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The vaccines were sold in China and to other countries, although it was unclear which ones. The group had been active since last September, according to state media.
“China has already reported the situation to the relevant countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing Tuesday.
“The Chinese government highly values vaccine safety and will continue to take efforts to strictly prosecute any counterfeits, fake sales and illegal business, and other related actions that involve vaccines," Wang said. "At the same time, China will strengthen our law enforcement cooperation with the relevant countries, to earnestly prevent the spread of this type of illegal and criminal action.” He did not offer further details.
China has a long history of vaccine scandals resulting from manufacturing issues as well as business practices. In 2016, police arrested two people who were in charge of a ring that sold millions of improperly stored vaccines across the country.
In response to recent scandals, China reformed vaccine safety regulations and increased criminal penalties for those caught making counterfeits.
Domestically, many Chinese citizens did not trust homegrown vaccines and surveys previously showed that trust in vaccines fell after scandals like the one in 2016. However, since the pandemic has struck, confidence has been high. A total of 74% of respondents in a recent survey published in Chinese business magazine Caixin said they would take a COVID-19 vaccine if it was available.
China has at least seven COVID-19 vaccines in the last stage of clinical trials, and has one that has been approved for domestic use, made by state-owned Sinopharm.
Chinese vaccine makers have seized the opportunity provided by the pandemic to go global, with Sinopharm and other Chinese companies making deals or donating their vaccines in at least 27 countries around the world.
Domestically, China has given more than 24 million doses of its homegrown vaccine candidates, as part of a mass vaccination campaign. It has so far refrained from giving the vaccine to the most elderly, instead targeting key groups such as medical workers and workers who work in food- related industries, as well as adults between the ages of 18 and 59.
Associated Press researcher Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this report.