Cancer patients plead for leniency for agent who bought them unapproved foreign drugs

By Li Ruohan Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/20 18:53:40

Liu Jia, an 11-year-old from North China's Shanxi Province, consoles her 9-year-old brother. The sister and brother both suffer from cancer. Photo: VCG

More than 100 cancer patients are calling for leniency for a man who was detained for selling foreign-made drugs that are not yet approved in China.

A total of 170 cancer patients and their relatives have written such letters as of Monday, calling for the release of Zhai Yiping, who has been in detention in Shanghai since July for allegedly selling illegal drugs.

Zhai was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2014 and he started helping other patients to buy the anti-cancer drugs E7080 and PD-1 from Germany in 2016. He charged a 5 percent commission.

The two are prescription drugs in Germany, and Zhai had never used them as his tumor was successfully removed in surgery in 2014, Shanghai-based newspaper Jiefang Daily reported Saturday after an interview with Zhai.

Police have confirmed that drugs valued at 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) or more were involved in Zhai's case, which is still being investigated, said the newspaper.

Zhai believes he is innocent as his intention was merely to help other cancer patients to get drugs and he is "saving other people's lives," Zhai's lawyer Si Weijiang told the Global Times on Sunday.

Si said he would file a document to local prosecutors to revoke the detention of Zhai, as lawyers believe the 46-year-old cancer patient should not be detained due to his medical condition.

Zhai was helping cancer patients to get treatment and his behavior has caused no harm to society, said Si.

Because the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) had not approved the two foreign drugs for sale in China when Zhai helped purchase them, the drugs were considered "counterfeit" based on China's Drug Administration Law.

Lifesaver or criminal

For Jerry Hu, a Shanghai resident whose father was diagnosed with liver cancer in April, Zhai was an agent with a "good conscience" as he offered "authentic drugs," which she regards as the most important thing for cancer patients who are racing against death every minute.

The first time Hu bought the two drugs from a dealer, Hu said she had paid double the list price but was offered a generic drug. 

Since using the drugs Zhai helped purchase in May, the situation of Hu's father had "clearly stabilized," Hu told the Global Times on Monday.

After Zhai's detention, Hu was introduced by doctors to another agent, who charged a 20,000 yuan service fee and 50 percent commission for each dose of the drugs.

Such agents can be easily found on China's internet and social media.

Searching "buying foreign drugs" on chat platform QQ brings up hundreds of chat groups created by those claiming they can help patients buy drugs from foreign markets including Germany, India, Thailand and the US.

An agent who who asked anonymity claimed he has dozens of local medical resources in India said he could help purchase any medicine from that market within 10 days after the clients paid the bill plus a 20 percent commission.

In July, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has urged authorities to step up measures to reduce the price of anti-cancer drugs and assure a steady supply of such medicine.

Change of law

Calling Zhai a "lifesaver," the mostly hand-written letters expressed their confusion about why drugs that are legally sold in foreign markets would be regarded as "counterfeit" in China.

According to China's Drug Administration Law, a drug produced or imported without approval, or sold without being tested as required by Chinese law, is considered a "counterfeit drug."  

China's Criminal Law states that the manufacturing and selling of counterfeit drugs could lead to the death penalty. 

Before 2011, criminal charges wouldn't be pressed unless the "counterfeit drugs severely harmed people's health." The precondition was removed in a criminal amendment in 2011, which significantly lowered the threshold of the criminal offense.

Though a 2014 judicial interpretation exempted criminal responsibility for those who "sell small amounts of foreign-made drugs unapproved in China that do not cause harm," the article is too vague in real cases and left a huge amount of discretion for judges, said Si.

Si, together with Xu Xin, another lawyer for Zhai, has sent a letter to the Constitution and Law Committee of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, calling for changes to the law.

Because an increasing number of cancer patients are buying foreign-made drugs that are not approved in China, and it still takes a long time for such drugs to be approved in China, criminal punishment must be prudent, Liu Changqiu, a health law expert and research fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Monday.

If drug agents are selling small amounts of authentic drugs that are obtained legally in foreign markets and the drugs have not caused injures to patients, or severe damage to society, they should be exempted from harsh punishment, said Liu.

The fundamental solution is to speed up the approval of drugs that are proved to be effective and safe in foreign markets, so that Chinese patients could buy the drugs through legal methods, said Si.
Newspaper headline: Dying to help


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