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Medical workers and experts say online vendors are profiteering from doctor"s appointments－time slots offered for sale at high prices－at some private hospitals for people seeking the 9-valent HPV vaccine, and they"re asking health authorities for immediate intervention.
The wide-ranging vaccine, given to females from age 9 to 26 to protect against nine types of human papillomavirus, a major cause of cancer, has been in short supply since it was introduced to the Chinese mainland in April.
While both private and public hospitals have either stopped taking appointments or introduced waiting lists, online agencies have started offering vaccination appointments at inflated prices for some private ones.
The highly sought-after vaccine costs around 4,000 yuan ($582) for a complete treatment of three shots at public hospitals and about 5,500 yuan at a private institution, according to disease prevention and control authorities.
The price quoted for the same inoculation booked through online vendors is almost 10,000 yuan in some places, including Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces and Shanghai.
Caihong Yuer, an online medical service provider, has drawn up a timetable for customers showing that the earlier they receive the first dose, the higher the price.
"We have contracts with private hospitals including HarMoniCre, Baodao and American-Sino, and they will prioritize our customers over others, so you can cut in line even when supplies are tight," a staff member said when contacted by a China Daily reporter.
Other agencies tout their long-term cooperation with medical institutions qualified to perform vaccinations, adding that supplies at partner institutions will last throughout the three-shot treatment regimen.
The clinics, however, tell a different story and suggest customers stay vigilant for online scams.
A customer service employee for Beijing Baodao Healthcare said at least 3,000 people are on its registration roster awaiting doses.
"We don"t know when the next batch of the 9-valent HPV vaccine will arrive or the amount of doses we will receive in the future," the employee said.
Another employee, surnamed Liu, said all vaccines are dispatched by the local center for disease control and prevention, and everyone is waiting right now.
"Don"t trust online vendors. They could be fraudsters," Liu said.
Two other private hospitals also denied having any relationship with such vendors, adding that they are in the dark about future supplies and won"t accept appointments in the short term.
Wang Yuedan, a professor at the Immunology School of Peking University Health Science Center, expressed concern about the credentials of online vaccine vendors.
"If they"re involved in the process of manufacturing, importing and wholesaling of vaccines, their action is against the law," he said. "Even if they are just providing consultations to customers, the regulators should conduct inspections to prevent speculative hoarding and price inflation."
Zeng Guang, an epidemiologist at China"s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, urged drug regulators to take a zero-tolerance attitude toward profit-driven vaccine agencies.
"Vaccines are a special product that require meticulous inspection throughout every single step, from production to follow-up checks," he said.
All 9-valent vaccines in China are imported from US-based pharmaceutical company Merck, so tight supplies have affected the whole country, including Beijing, said Yao Xiujun, deputy director of the Beijing Health Commission"s department in charge of protecting the general public.
"The strain is expected to ease."
Zhi Fei Biological Co, a domestic importer of Merck"s 4-valent and 9-valent HPV vaccines, said in a statement on Nov 5 that it will purchase vaccines worth 5.5 billion yuan from the US company this year－7.4 times more than in 2017－and 8.3 billion yuan in 2020.
On Sept 12, Xiaoshan district of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, started a lottery system for vaccinations using the 9-valent type to ensure fairness at a time of high demand. Shenzhen announced in November that it would follow suit.