Buying a rabies vaccine for pets online in China is quick and cheap. The problem is the products are being sold illegally and some could be fake. The same applies to the vaccines sold by local pet shops, grooming salons and some animal hospitals.

The black market for rabies vaccines is growing throughout China and elsewhere in Asia, where thousands of humans die from the viral disease every year. The spread of fake vaccines has become extremely dangerous, veterinarians say.

In China, rabies vaccine procurement and distribution channels are controlled by the government. Only animal vaccination hospitals certified and licensed by the Animal Husbandry Bureau, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Agriculture, can provide rabies and distemper vaccines legally. And all supplies of rabies vaccines in China come from international pharmaceutical companies.

Nevertheless, companies are selling anti-rabies vaccines that they claim are legal and licensed products on Taobao, China’s online shopping website equivalent of eBay.

Taobao shops offer rabies detection tests and vaccine for pets.

“This is for sure the real stuff. We have a QR code to prevent counterfeits,” said a representative for Kang You Yi Pet Shop, based in Anhui province, when contacted online by an Asia Times reporter acting as a consumer wanting to buy a rabies vaccine. “You can pick it up in two days.”

Government license?

The price is 15 RMB (US$2) per shot. The producer of the vaccine is a local Chinese company called Five Star Animal Health Pharmaceutical Factory. The pet shop representative said they also sell rabies vaccines from international brands like Pfizer and Akzo Nobel. The shop said it had a government license to sell the products.

Mary Peng, founder of the International Center for Veterinary Services in Beijing, said it’s worrying how easy it is to buy unlicensed vaccines, which offer insufficient protection for dogs as well family members who live with the pets.

“In China, no animal rabies vaccines can be legally purchased from any source other than the government controlled Animal Husbandry Bureaus. You cannot buy it on Taobao,” said Peng. “Some people are making a lot of money on this.”

In almost all cases, rabies victims in China are infected by dogs. At the same time, fewer than 20 percent of China’s estimated 100 million-plus dogs are vaccinated, and that figure drops to less than 3 percent in the countryside, according to Peng.

“Part of the problem why China has so much rabies is not only because dogs don’t get vaccinated,” she said. “It’s also because people don’t know that the place they got the vaccination from wasn’t a government designated animal vaccination hospital. Instead, they unknowingly used an unlicensed inefficient vaccine,” she said.

“The system isn’t transparent or promoted. People just don’t understand it.”

Poorly implemented

Illegal and counterfeit vaccines are not only sold online. Pet shops, unlicensed animal hospitals and other places that deal with animals are also involved in the trade. Peng tells of a client in Beijing who was out walking his dog recently when a local fruit vendor approached him and offered to sell the man cheap vaccination shots for the dog.

“It is scary when even your local fruit vendor is selling rabies vaccines,” she said.

Dr Kati Loeffler, a veterinary adviser for the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Massachusetts, U.S., said that the vaccination of dogs is poorly implemented in many places in Asia, as governments do not invest enough in canine rabies vaccination programs.

She said the situation “is extremely dangerous” and could ultimately lead to more “lives being lost, epidemics spreading and panic among the citizens and the authorities, resulting in irrational and highly damaging policies being made.”

“Fraudulent rabies vaccines and certificates contribute to the uncontrolled rabies problem in the very countries that have the most problems with the disease,” she said.

Fraud victims

“The victims of this fraud and the policies based on that fraud are largely children and animals: the most vulnerable members of society.”

Several Taobao shops also offer rabies detection tests for pets, but there is only one way to conclusively diagnose rabies: A postmortem autopsy of brain tissue, Peng explained.

Taobao shops offer rabies detection tests and vaccine for pets.

China is also plagued by fake rabies vaccines for humans.

In 2010, more than 1,600 people were reportedly injected with counterfeit rabies vaccines in several provinces in China. A five-year-old boy died as a result.

Earlier this year Chinese authorities arrested dozens of people suspected of black market sales of vaccines — including for rabies — that involved almost US$90 million worth of illegal products.

In March a woman from the eastern province of Anhui was sentenced to three years in prison for selling fake rabies vaccines that had resulted in the death of one patient, a local news portal said.

The sales agent at Kang You Yi Pet Shop insisted in an email that they don’t sell vaccine for humans.

“I don’t dare to. The regulations for human vaccines are too rigorous,” he said.