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[BEIJING] The premier of China has ordered an investigation into alleged corruption by the former head of the country's drugs watchdog.

Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a thorough inquiry into Zheng Xiaoyu's actions as head of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) after hearing a report by the Ministry of Supervision at an executive cabinet meeting on Wednesday (24 January). Zheng left the post 18 months ago.

According to the Xinhua news agency, the executives heard how Zheng had neglected his supervision of the drug market, abused the administration's drug approval authority by taking bribes and deliberately ignored malpractice by relatives and subordinate officials. He was reportedly under investigation by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Chinese Communist Party in December last year.

Zheng had been minister of the SFDA since it was established in 1998. Under his leadership, China established national standards for approving medicines and promoted good manufacturing practice for drug companies.

It is in these areas that Zheng and his subordinates are believed to have abused power and taken bribes. Two SFDA officials — Hao Heping and Cao Wenzhuang, responsible for approving pharmaceutical equipments and drugs — were arrested in July 2005 and June 2006 respectively. Hao received a 15-year prison sentence in November 2006, while Cao has yet to sentenced.

Dong Shengming, secretary-general of the non-governmental Beijing Pharmaceutical Profession Association, said the huge number of new drug applications was the major reason for the arrests and accusations at the SFDA.

In 2004, the SFDA received 10,008 applications for new drugs —  mostly generics — while the US Food and Drug Administration fielded 148.

Because of this, drug manufacturers have resorted to "irregular methods", such as bribes, to get approval for their drugs, Dong told SciDev.Net.

He said this was unlikely to change in the near future, as many manufacturers have been hit by price cuts resulting from harsh competition between generic drug firms. They therefore do not have the funds to invest in the lengthy development of new medicines.