China on Tuesday said it had sent officials to investigate a prominent drug maker after eight babies were found to have died because of vaccine-related causes in recent weeks, sparking widespread public concern.

On Monday morning, a newborn died in the southwestern Sichuan province after the administration of a hepatitis B vaccine.

The death was the eighth such case in recent weeks, sparking anxiety across the country about the safety of vaccinations. Since last month, two deaths have been reported in Sichuan, following four deaths in southern Guangdong and two in Hunan province.

After seven of the cases were found to have been linked to vaccines made by Biokangtai, a drug manufacturer in Guangdong, the national food and drug administration issued a circular suspending use of its products. One case, according to Chinese media reports, was subsequently ruled out as being related to its vaccine.

On Tuesday, health authorities dispatched government investigators to Biokangtai's Shenzhen headquarters, State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reported. The company released a statement last week saying the deaths were “coincidental” and unrelated to its products. However, questions have been raised as to whether the health authorities responded fast enough to assuage public concerns.

With Biokangtai accounting for as much 60 per cent of free hepatitis B vaccines administered in China, the reports of the deaths have caused widespread alarm.

By the time authorities sent out a circular on December 13 suspending use of its products, the company’s vaccines were already being used in Guangdong, Hunan and Guizhou provinces even though there had been concerns about the products since November, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

“Many questions are being asked,” Xinhua acknowledged in a commentary. “Should the government have suspended use of Biokangtai vaccines earlier? Could the latest death have been prevented?”

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