As a government regulator sidled into a car, the Chinese pharmaceutical executive handed over a paper bag stuffed with cash.
The executive, Du Weimin, was eager to get his company’s vaccines approved, and he needed help. The official took the money and vowed to try his best.
Several months later, Mr. Du got the greenlight to begin clinical trials for two vaccines. They were ultimately approved, generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
The government official was jailed in 2016 for taking bribes from Mr. Du and several other vaccine makers. Mr. Du was never charged.
His company, Shenzhen Kangtai Biological Products, produces about one-quarter of the world’s supply of vaccines. And Mr. Du, who has been called the “king of vaccines,” is one of the richest men in China.
Capitalizing on that success, Mr. Du and his company are at the forefront of the race to produce a coronavirus vaccine, a national priority for China’s ruling Communist Party. Kangtai will be the exclusive manufacturer in mainland China for the vaccine made by AstraZeneca, and the companies could work together on deals for other countries. Kangtai is also in early trials for its own candidate.
As the Chinese government has pushed to develop vaccine companies of global renown, the state has fostered and protected an industry plagued by corruption and controversy.
Drug companies, eager to get their products into the hands of consumers, have used financial incentives to sway poorly compensated government workers for regulatory approvals. Hundreds of Chinese officials have been accused of taking bribes in cases involving vaccine companies.
Oversight has been weak, contributing to scandals over substandard vaccines. While the government after each incident has vowed to do more to clean up the industry, regulators have rarely provided much information about what went wrong. Companies have been allowed to continue operating.
Dr. Ray Yip, a former head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in China, said he considers Kangtai to be among the top tiers of the country’s vaccine companies, adding that he “has no problem” with the manufacturing and technology standards of most players.
“The problem for many of them is their business practice,” Dr. Yip said. “They all want to sell to the local governments, so they have to do kickbacks, they have to bribe.”
Kangtai did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In a statement, AstraZeneca said it “conducts appropriate and thorough due diligence prior to entering an agreement with any entity.”
The lack of transparency, compounded by dubious business practices, has rattled public confidence in Chinese-made vaccines, even though they have been proved safe. Many well-off parents shun them, preferring their Western counterparts.
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