Drug costs soar as China tops world ranking in cancer

As World Health Organization figures show China rising to the top of the list of countries with the most cancer cases, its people are facing increasing problems in trying to find ways to pay for their treatments. Healthcare costs are soaring in the nation despite the government's efforts to force drug prices lower.

A recent Bloomberg report said China spends $115 billion on pharmaceuticals annually, but stubbornly high prices mean some are having to make life-and-death decisions. In one example, Bloomberg reported that a young leukemia patient needed Vfend, an antifungal treatment used to fight infection made by Pfizer ($PFE), that costs $590 for 10 tablets, an amount equal to half the yearly income of the young patient's grandparents who take care of the child.

China's cancer crisis takes an estimated 2.2 million lives each year, Bloomberg reported, and the trials and tribulations of its people are exacerbated by the lack of insurance for many in a country where disposable income per person was $3,200 in 2014 compared to $40,000 in the United States. Costs for cancer drugs can easily outstrip that very quickly.

The report said Chinese cancer patients pay anywhere from 80% to 120% of U.S. prices for foreign medicines and also pay up to 77% of all private healthcare costs compared to U.S. patients that pay 22%.

China claims that it covers 95% of the healthcare coverage for its citizens, but costly foreign drugs for cancer treatments are often not covered. The country is undergoing a massive reorganization of its healthcare system that is expected to cost upward of $460 billion and is trying to cut drug costs and improve insurance coverage.

China's efforts to slash spending on drugs is having a perverse effect on its public hospitals which rely on drug sales to add to their operating revenues. Some figures show the total can reach 40% of a hospital's total revenues, Bloomberg reported. The hospitals also sell foreign drugs because cheaper, domestically made medicines are often not trusted. The China Food and Drug Administration has launched measures to beef up its generic industry and try to restore trust in Chinese-made medicines.

Some Chinese sufferers and their caregivers are even making the trek across the border to Hong Kong to buy drugs like Roche's ($RHBBY) breast cancer treatment Herceptin, which at $2,580 for a 440-milligram vial is said to be 30% less than prices in China in areas not close to large healthcare facilities.

As FiercePharmaAsia reported in September, China recognizes its cancer problem and said then it was planning a three-year campaign to expand efforts to detect cancers early as well as efforts at cancer prevention such as trying to get people to quit smoking.

As the report said then, the country is also seeing a host of oncology-related deals being made, a notable example being a $456 million deal signed between Eli Lilly ($LLY) and China's Innovent Biologics to collaborate on oncology treatments.

Other companies such as China's BeiGene are pursuing in-licensed or original candidate development for both the domestic market and overseas to answer the call of the mainland's government to develop innovative drugs for cancer treatments.

- here's the story from Bloomberg

EJ Lane contributed to this report.