Drugs, paralysis and a cover up: a depressing story from Southern Weekend

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Southern Weekend, the Guangzhou based weekly known over the years for its willingness to publish controversial stories (sometimes in defiance of the authorities) details in its January 16 issue the depressing facts behind a case of a badly contaminated anti leukemia drug, produced by a Shanghai based pharmaceutical company, leading to nearly 200 cases of paralysis in patients that were being treated with the drug all over China. This appears to be another case of what happens all too frequently here, in the “you-get -what -you -pay -for” economy that China has become.
Which is to say, according to the Southern Weekend piece, profit margins on the drug produced by the Hualian unit of the Shanghai Pharmaceutical company—a state owned firm—were “ less than what you make on a bottle of mineral water,’’ according to a former company employee quoted in the piece. That’s at least partly because the price of the drug—which cost just 1.9 yuan per injection at one Shanghai hospital—was set by the government, which ordered the company to produce it.
That, China’s Food and Drug Administration concluded, led to shoddy quality control practices at Hualian, which included failing to dispose of waste properly. That, in turn may have led to the inadvertent mixing of chemicals into the anti leukemia drug which didn’t belong there, the story says.
There are several sub texts to the story—not the least of which is to try to rehabilitate the reputation of China’s FDA. Last spring, the head of the agency was indicted for taking bribes worth 6.4 million RMB from companies he was supposed to be regulating. He was then executed. The piece also indicates that the Shanghai branch of the FDA didn’t acquit itself too well in the initial investigation—it issued an order in August of last year allowing hospitals to continue using the drug, because it didn’t by then have proof that the anti leukemia drug was causing the paralysis in patients taking it. Eventually authorities from the FDA’s headquarters in Beijing ride in to the rescue.
All that aside, the depressing facts– as laid out by Southern Weekend, at least– have the pharmaceutical company engaging in a cover up to hide the fact that they knew this drug was causing problems. And that it was the brutal cost pressures that the company felt which led to the problems to begin with. The senior managers of the company are all now under arrest awaiting trial. TIME’s efforts to get Shanghai Pharmaceutical to comment on the specific allegations raised in the Southern Weekend piece were unavailing.
If you read Chinese, you can check out the entire piece on the Southern Weekend website at