An investigation by the Lanzhou Health Commission found that fumes from the Lanzhou Biopharmaceutical Plant, a unit of the state-owned China Animal Husbandry Industry, caused the infections. The facility staff had used expired sanitizers while producing Brucella vaccines, allowing the bacteria to escape through the plant’s exhaust air and infecting people nearby. Many of those who tested positive for Brucella antibodies were those working at the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute just a few meters away.
The Brucella bacterium is the pathogen responsible for the highly infectious brucellosis. The disease commonly occurs in livestock, but humans may contract it through close contact with infected animals or consumption of unpasteurized dairy products. Symptoms of brucellosis include recurring fever, joint pain and fatigue; while it can cause problems in the reproductive system leading to infertility in the long run, it is rarely deadly.
Brucellosis commonly affects people who have close contact with animals for extended periods—such as farmhands, veterinary surgeons and slaughterhouse workers. However, the Brucella antibodies found in the more than 3,000 people who tested positive for the pathogen proved that they breathed in the contaminated air from the Lanzhou plant.
According to Zhu Guoqiang, a professor at Yangzhou University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the Brucella infections in Lanzhou were “notable” due to the number of people infected. He expressed uncertainty about whether the bacteria in the contaminated air were as toxic as the ones found in those directly dealing with infected animals.
Professor Zhu said that veterinarians were vigilant of brucellosis, as it was very difficult to treat, and recovering from the disease took a long time.
As a result of the infections, the Chinese government revoked the Lanzhou Biopharmaceutical Plant’s license to manufacture vaccines and chastised eight of its senior managers. Meanwhile, 11 hospitals were assigned as brucellosis treatment centers where patients can visit free of charge. Furthermore, the city’s health commission announced that all affected individuals will be compensated financially starting October.
The Brucella infection in Lanzhou is another blow to China’s vaccine industry, which is already reeling from the scandal surrounding vaccine maker Changsheng Bio-technology. In 2018, Reuters reported that the company’s subsidiary Changchun Changsheng Life Sciences was slapped a hefty 9.1 billion yuan fine (about $1.3 billion) over falsifying data for a rabies vaccine it was developing for human use. Fourteen of its executives were also barred from working in the pharmaceutical sector.
Aside from data falsification, Changsheng also came under fire for producing an ineffective vaccine for babies. A Sept. 14 report from the South China Morning Post mentioned that the company sold more than 250,000 DPT vaccines in Shandong province. DPT vaccines given to babies as young as three months old in China protect against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus. However, tests subsequently performed in November 2017 revealed that some of these vaccines did not work at all.
These scandals have made more and more Chinese skeptical of getting the jab for flu, leading the Chinese government to resort to propaganda just to convince people of the “benefits” of vaccination. If Chinese pharmaceutical companies still encounter issues with common vaccines for brucellosis, rabies and other diseases – it subsequently undermines their capability to fast-track a vaccine for the coronavirus. (Related: Coronavirus came from a Chinese lab and no vaccine will ever cure it, declares renowned scientist.)
Learn more about issues related to vaccines in China and other countries at Vaccines.news.