China has been rocked by a series of production problems in the pharmaceutical sector. Photo: iStock
The two companies merging would form a record-breaking US$236 billion company. Photo: iStock

Finding an antidote for China’s pharmaceutical scandal is proving elusive. Earlier this week, two more Chinese drugmakers recalled blood-pressure products, which had been exported to Taiwan, because of a potential impurity linked to cancer.

The decision comes less than a month after Zhejiang Huahai Pharmaceutical triggered a global alert over a similar issue.

Batches of valsartan, which is packaged as tablets, capsules and in liquid form, from Zhejiang Tianyu Pharmaceutical and Zhuhai Rundu Pharmaceutical, were found to contain N-nitrosodimethylamine, or NDMA, which is believed to cause cancer in extreme cases.

“Tianyu Pharm made its announcement in a statement Monday to the Shenzhen exchange, where both companies are listed, while Rundu [Pharma issued] a similar statement,” AFP news agency reported. “Shares of both companies plunged by the daily limit of 10%.”

In 2017, China was the world’s second largest healthcare market, worth US$122.6 billion, IQVIA, a major medical and information company, revealed. The country was also the biggest emerging market for pharmaceuticals with growth predicted to expand from $145 billion to $175 billion by 2022.

Yet amid the carnage of fabricated production data and faulty quality control, confidence in the domestic drugs industry has hit rock bottom after Changsheng Biotechnology sold more than 250,000 substandard rabies vaccines.

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Last month, authorities in the northeast city of Changchun, where the company has its headquarters, arrested 15 people, including the company’s chairwoman, on “suspicion of criminal offenses.”

To add to the furor, regulators have since confirmed that Changsheng had shipped a separate substandard vaccine for diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus, selling 250,000 vials to Shandong province last year.

“The latest in a litany of food and drug safety scares, the Changsheng case has sparked both intense criticisms of the Chinese government’s ability to regulate the space at home, and concerns about China’s recent push to market pharmaceuticals abroad,” Viola Rothschild, a research associate in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank based in Washington, said in a blog post. “Indeed, implications extend well beyond the immediate fallout of the scandal.

“To make matters even worse, the Changsheng incident also comes hot on the heels of another unsettling revelation: just a few weeks ago China’s Zhejiang Huahai Pharmaceutical recalled a heart and blood pressure drug sold in the United States and Europe after finding that it was tainted with an impurity linked to cancer,” she added.

At this rate, only drastic surgery by Beijing will be able to repair the shattered reputation of China’s domestic pharma groups.