Where Do The Chinese Get Their Medicines? From Their Living Rooms

November 20, 2018 10:10 am

While Americans were lining up this summer to see “The Incredibles 2” and the new Avengers installment, Chinese moviegoers were spending their weekends watching “Dying to Survive,” a biopic about a Chinese leukemia patient who smuggled drugs into the country for his own use and to sell.


As Americans contemplate what the regime for drug pricing could look like in the United States, it’s worth looking at outcomes in other countries. And, according to The New York Times, smuggling is a common story in China, where the government has tried to get a handle on the situation through increased law enforcement and price negotiation.


Zhang Zhejun, who does not have any medical or drug manufacturing experience, concocted his own cancer drugs in an effort to treat his ailing mother because, as The Times, said “China’s ambitious but troubled health care system” couldn’t—or wouldn’t—provide medication.


Police in China regularly raid homes looking for contraband, The Times explained. Hong Ruping, who is on kidney dialysis and manufactures his own medicines, was arrested (though later released). He told The Times, “I have this disease, and if they want to convict me, there’s nothing I can do … What is the difference between going to jail and being sick? There is no freedom.”


Innovation in China is rare. An article earlier this year at Biopharma Trend noted, “Although China has come a long way as a country in the last 30 years or so, drug discovery and development has not been one of its fortes.” In its article, The Times explained that, between 2006 and 2016, the country’s Food and Drug Administration approved only 100 or so new treatments. The country also tightly controls imports of drugs from other countries and “drugs have to qualify for coverage under one of China’s insurance plans.”


As the market in China languishes, safety is a major concern. Before The Times’ article was published, Zhang Zhejun’s mother died of gastrointestinal bleeding and acute bronchitis. He told The Times that he wasn’t sure if the drugs he made himself were the cause, or if her cancer took her life.


Zhang also acknowledged he wasn’t sure where the ingredients for his homemade drugs came from, or whether they even were authentic. As he created his mother’s medicines in his home, there were no regulators, no oversight, no approval processes that guaranteed safety. Zhang said, “We don’t have the right to choose … You just hope the sellers have a conscience.”