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Man behind China’s first approved Covid-19 shot expelled from national legislature

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A former senior executive at China’s largest vaccine maker, who led the development of the country’s first inactivated Covid-19 shot, has been dismissed from the national legislature.

Yang Xiaoming was removed from his post as a deputy of the legislature for alleged “serious violations of discipline and law”, the National People’s Congress (NPC) said in an official statement on Friday, using a common euphemism for corruption.

Yang, 62, is a veteran researcher and former chairman of China National Biotec Group, a vaccine subsidiary of state-owned Sinopharm. He led a team that developed Sinopharm’s BBIBP-CorV vaccine, China’s first coronavirus shot approved for general use.

The NPC statement, which followed a four-day meeting of its standing committee, suggests Yang is already being investigated by the party disciplinary body – the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

The Sinopharm shot and Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac were the most widely used in China and the leading Covid-19 vaccines exported by the country.

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Yang’s dismissal comes amid the biggest crackdown on China’s healthcare system, expanding a sweeping anti-corruption drive launched by President Xi Jinping in late 2012.

The crackdown aims to root out widespread corruption in a system plagued by kickbacks. It targets hospitals, drug companies and insurance funds, with dozens of hospital chiefs detained since last year.

Another former Sinopharm senior executive, Zhou Bin, who once served as the company’s deputy general manager, was placed under investigation by the CCDI in January.

Yang, whose research focused on vaccine innovation and development, also served as a chief engineer and chief scientist at Sinopharm.

He is also the chief scientist of the vaccine project under China’s national 863 programme, a state-funded and administered platform for developing advanced technologies.

The Covid-19 vaccine developed by Yang’s team was approved for general use in December 2020. Within a year, it was approved for use in 112 countries and regions, making it the coronavirus vaccine with the widest supply range at the time, according to media reports.

In an interview with state media in 2021, Yang said that the vaccine went from development to market release within just about 330 days, describing it as a “miracle”.

Yang also revealed that he was among the first to receive trial shots of the Sinopharm vaccine in March 2020, and “had about 60 tubes of blood drawn in nine months” to test for antibodies. Antibodies could be detected a week after the first dose, he said.

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Yang was also among the recipients of a national award in September 2020 for his role in fighting the pandemic.

In November, Yang was recognised by the Chinese Society of Immunology as an outstanding scholar. This was followed in December by the Ho Leung Ho Lee Foundation award, which recognises Chinese scholars in science and medical fields.

In addition to being stripped of his qualification as NPC representative, Yang has also lost his membership of the NPC’s Ethnic Affairs Committee, according to Friday’s statement.

A review of the qualifications of some deputies was a point of agenda for the NPC Standing Committee meeting last week. Three other deputies apart from Yang were also dismissed for “serious violations of discipline and law”.

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