China’s ambition to become a major player in vaccines has hit a snag: the deaths of 17 newborn infants who had just received Chinese-made hepatitis B vaccines. Authorities have halted production at three of the country’s largest vaccine manufacturers while autopsies are conducted, and have asked the World Health Organization (paywall) to help investigate. The hepatitis B vaccine was made by Shenzhen-based BioKangtai, and the infants were inoculated under a government-run health initiative.
The incident comes at an inconvenient time for Chinese drug makers who are trying to find a niche in an industry long dominated by a few international pharmaceutical giants. WHO granted its first “pre-qualification” status in October to a Chinese firm, for China National Biotec Group’s vaccine against Japanese encephalitis. It’s easy to see why the vaccine market is attractive: Vaccine sales have reached $25 billion a year. Other Chinese producers of vaccines for meningitis, polio, and pneumonia are likely to seek WHO approval over the next decade, according to Jack Zhang (pdf) of the US-based nonprofit PATH.
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