Film about cancer drugs imported from India spurs debate over high costs in China

By Zhang Hui Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/5 22:38:41

The Chinese black comedy Dying to Survive, which hit Chinese mainland theaters Thursday, has triggered hot discussions on cheap Indian generic drug imports, with experts saying that China should allow more to be imported and greater investment should be made in its own generic drugs.

The film is based on the true story of Lu Yong, a leukemia patient, who imports and sells less expensive generic anticancer drugs from India for chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) patients on the Chinese mainland who can't afford the exorbitant cost of the drug Glivec, which is produced by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis.

Between 2006 and 2013, Lu helped hundreds of CML patients buy a generic drug produced by India's Natco Pharma for around 200 yuan ($30) per month, which claims to be as effective as Glivec but costs more than 20,000 yuan each month.

Lu was charged with selling counterfeit drugs in 2014 in Central China's Hunan Province, but prosecutors withdrew the charges in 2015.

Lu told the Nanjing-based Modern Express Wednesday that he is still taking the India-made drugs, even though Glivec has been included in the national health insurance program in many provinces and patients' monthly costs have been reduced to around 1,000 yuan.

Most of the Indian generic drugs available in China are anti-cancer drugs, which remain popular because they are said to be more effective than similar China-made generic drugs that are often in scarce supply, experts said. 

Chinese manufactures are not allowed to produce generic versions of some Western drugs as they have a patent protection period of between 30 and 50 years, Tian Guangqiang, assistant research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.

He said that this requires China to import expensive Western drugs, and most are not covered by the country's health insurance.

India is the largest global provider of generic drugs, with Indian generics accounting for 20 percent of global exports, said a report published on the website of the India Brand Equity Foundation, a trust established by the Indian government.

Cai Jiangnan, a healthcare research fellow at the China Europe International Business School, told the Global Times that China's healthcare system is also to blame for the high cost of imported drugs because hospitals are required to cover their costs by overcharging for drugs.

Only a few Indian generic drugs are officially allowed to be sold in China, as China's drug testing procedures differ from India's, according to Tian.

"All of these factors have forced Chinese patients to turn to illegal agencies to obtain cheap Indian drugs, and the quality and safety cannot be guaranteed as they are not inspected or authorized by the Chinese government," Tian said.

Chinese agents selling Indian generic drugs were easy to find on China's Internet search engine Baidu and online shopping platform Taobao on Thursday.

One agent reached on his online platform, who refused to be named, said selling India-made generic drugs to the Chinese mainland was a lucrative part-time job that he had been doing for three years.

He charges 3,800 yuan plus 150 yuan delivery fee for a box of Tagrix, a life-saving medicine used in the treatment of lung cancer. He claimed that all the drugs he sold are from official Indian pharmacies.

Tagrix is the Indian version of Tagrisso, which is made by UK-based pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. The cost of the UK drug is as high as 50,000 yuan per box in the Chinese mainland.

The agent reached by Global Times said he also sells five other India-made generic anti-cancer drugs.

China should increase Indian generic drug imports, strengthen cooperation with Indian pharmacies in developing generic drugs, while increasing investment in developing new drugs, experts suggested.

They noted that the Chinese government has taken measures as cancer drugs are life-savers and should be affordable to everyone who needs them.

According to a post published on the central government's website,  import tariffs have been lifted on those drugs. And on May 1, China exempted 28 drugs from import tariffs, including cancer drugs.

About 4.3 million people are diagnosed with cancer annually in China, according to a report on China Central Television.
Newspaper headline: Film spurs debate on drugs costs


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