Source: The Times of India
19 Jan 2015
Lu Yong is facing trial in China for smuggling lifesaving leukemia drugs from India for himself and hundreds of other patients. Lu’s case shot into the limelight after patients and families who he helped out petitioned the government to exempt him from punishment. According to activists, cases such as Lu’s are a symptom of the severe crisis in access to life-saving patented medicines which are priced beyond the reach of most people in developing countries including China. Cheaper generic versions of many of these anti-cancer medicines available in India have become the only hope for thousands of patients.
Lu is not the only one to get caught importing cheaper drugs from India for patients. Zhao Hongjiang and his wife, Ma Yalin, were arrested last year for selling Indian anti-cancer drugs through an online supermarket. These are a few of the known cases. It is believed that there are hundreds, if not thousands of Chinese, who are getting their anti-cancer drugs from India just as patients in Nepal, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, the US, UK (as NHS does not cover many of the expensive patented drugs), South Africa, Russia, and countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe do.
Lu’s case has often been referred to as the ‘Chinese Dallas Buyers Club’. Dallas Buyers Club is the film based on the true story of a patient diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s who smuggled unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas despite the regulations of the Food and Drug Administration of the US prohibiting it. The protagonist used the smuggled drugs to treat himself and others with AIDS by establishing the “Dallas Buyers’ Club”. Buyers’ clubs shot into the news during the HIV epidemic when patients and/or their friends pooled resources to smuggle in drugs into countries where the drugs needed to treat AIDS were either not available or too expensive because of patents.
One such buyers’ clubs of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa pushed the South African government to break the patent on HIV medicines and allowed the Indian company Cipla to supply the drug at just $300 a year, when Big Pharma drugs were selling for about $12,000 per patient per year.
“We had a buyers’ club in Thailand to get HIV medicines from India. Members of the club used to bring in several suitcases full of anti-retroviral medicines,” says Paul Cawthorne, former Head of Mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Thailand. MSF gave technical support to the buyers’ club which was run by TNP+ (Thai Network of People Living with HIV). “Gradually, with the intervention of senior officials the medicines seized by Thai customs were released. That is often what happens with buyers’ clubs because the authorities see that these people are desperate to get the medicines they cannot afford otherwise. As long as they are doing it purely on humanitarian grounds and not for profit, they (the authorities) look away,” explains Cawthorne.
Lu Yong’s might not be a classic buyers’ club case since the drugs he brought in were not illegal in China. Lu was diagnosed with leukemia in 2002 and went bankrupt paying for Novartis’ patented drug Gleevec which cost 23,000 yuan. Even the generic version in China cost 1,000 yuan, compared to the 100 yuan it cost to buy from India.
“There is a whole new category of medicines being produced for various cancers and Hepatitis C. In the case of Hepatitis C, the cure rate is very poor for existing medicines whereas the new medicines have cure rates of up to 95%. But the prices are ludicrous. It’s $1000 per pill in the US ($84,000 for the whole course of treatment). Most people across the world can’t afford it. Technically buyers’ clubs are illegal because you are bringing in drugs which have not been approved for sale in a particular country or jurisdiction. But these new buyers’ clubs are a response to the huge crisis of access, especially when it comes to new medicines for cancer and Hepatitis C. Without those medicines, people would have died. Desperate situations call for desperate measures,” says Cawthorne.
A treatment activist in India was against penalizing people like Lu. “Affordable generics are not available due to patent barriers. Instead of recognizing the access crisis why penalize one person doing what a whole lot of people are doing?” she asked.
According to Marcus Lowe, head of Policy, Communications and Research of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, the importance of India is not limited to buyers clubs. “The supply of quality, affordable generic medicines from India is extremely important to hundreds of millions of people across the developing world. There is no one to step in should the supply from India dry up. In turn, India’s ability to keep providing affordable medicines depends on India’s patent laws remaining intact.”
K Gopa Kumar of the Third World Network said this was why the big multinationals were targeting India’s generic companies and its patent law. “The pharma company NATCO which successfully challenged the patent on imatinib (for treating leukemia) and got a compulsory licence issued for sorafenib (for renal cancer) has borne the brunt of harassment suits from Big Pharma. Cipla made HIV drugs accessible. Today, NATCO is doing it for anticancer drugs,” says Kumar, adding that MNCs did not want others emulating India as is happening in Brazil and South Africa where they are amending their patent law along the lines of the Indian law.