Source: Caixin Online
Lu Yong nearly went broke getting his drugs in China, but purchasing a cheap generic substitute from abroad has landed him in legal trouble
(Beijing) – To prosecutors, a leukemia patient named Lu Yong is a criminal involved in credit card fraud and a counterfeit drug scam. But to 1,000 fellow leukemia patients in China, Lu is an unsung hero for helping them get access to cheap, life-saving generic medicines from India.
The difference of opinion underscores a dilemma confronting Chinese patients who cannot afford expensive imported drugs but also face obstacles getting access to life-saving substitutes.
Lu, a 46-year old exporter from Wuxi, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, will stand trial in a court in Yuanjiang, in the central province of Hunan, on charges of credit card-related fraud and sales of fake drugs.
Some 300 fellow patients have petitioned the courts to have his name cleared.
Lu was diagnosed with leukemia more than 10 years ago and treated with Glivec, a patented drug made by Novartis International AG. The Swiss company got a license to sell the medicine in China in 2002.
The drug regimen costs 23,500 yuan a month and is not covered by China’s health care insurance, meaning it is too expensive for many ordinary people.
After spending hundreds of thousands of yuan on the medicine, Lu was close to be broke in 2004 when he came across an English-language article mentioning another leukemia drug, Veenat, a much cheaper generic version of Glivec made in India.
He spent 3,000 yuan on Veenat bought via mail order, and his condition quickly improved. Lu not only switched to the generic drug himself, but also started to help fellow patients he met in an online forum buy it.
For this, he was arrested in a crackdown on credit card fraud in Yuanjiang in August 2013. In July he was charged with “disrupting management of credit cards” and sales of fake medications.
Luo Jian, a prosecutor in Yuanjiang, told Caixin that any drug lacking a government license – even one made by a registered pharmaceutical company – is classified as counterfeit under Chinese law.
Lu also broke the law by providing his Indian supplier with a credit card he got from abroad in order to simplify distribution, Luo said. (Using credit cards from domestic banks to complete international transactions is often impossible in China.)
The patent for Novartis’ Glivec expired in 2013, and at least two China-based pharmaceutical companies have jumped on the opportunity to churn out generic substitutes.
But a generic version produced by Chia Tai Tianqing Pharmaceutical Group in Jiangsu cost 4,200 yuan a month and another substitute, from Jiangsu Hansoh Pharmaceutical, cost 3,800 yuan a month. The versions from India cost 200 yuan a month.
“That’s why mail orders of (both patented and generic drugs) from overseas suppliers are so popular in China,” an analyst with knowledge of the drug market said.
Chinese patients snub locally made generic medicines because they are concerned about quality.
Shi Lichen, a senior partner at the medical and pharmaceutical unit of All PKU, a consultancy in Beijing, said India’s patent law allows companies to make generic versions of patented drugs released in developed countries. “That’s why Indian-made generic substitutes can be much cheaper,” he said.
Chinese law lets drugs firms apply to mass produce generic drugs on the grounds that major public health threat exists, but few companies have shown interest because the government forces them to wait a long time for permission.
For example, an executive from a Chinese pharmaceutical company said that that the patent for Tenofovir, or Viread, which is used to treat HIV and hepatitis B infections, would expire in 2017. “But if we apply for approval of a generic substitute right now, we will have to wait for three years, which is not far away from the expiration date of the drug’s patent.”
(Rewritten by Li Rongde)