India's bargain-priced cancer drugs lure Chinese smugglers

India's new cut-rate cancer drugs were supposed to help citizens afford life-saving treatments. But now Chinese patients want in on the act. According to NZweek, Chinese smugglers and patients are finding ways to get Indian-made cancer therapies, at Indian prices, into the country.

Smugglers have been arrested and online vendors shut down. But patients and their sources continue to tap the black market because India's generic versions of Big Pharma cancer drugs cost a fraction of the amount charged for branded versions in China.

Nexavar, the Bayer cancer treatment, runs 20,000 yuan per month in China. But India forced Bayer to license the patented drug to a domestic generics maker, Natco Pharma. Now, Nexavar copies are available in India--and illicitly in China--for much less. Soranib, an unsanctioned knockoff version made by Cipla, costs 2,000 yuan in China, NZweek reports.

So the motivation for cross-border trade is obvious. Some of the Indian drugs are making their way to China via the usual smuggling techniques--and some of the smugglers are getting caught. As NZweek notes, a Beijing court last week sentenced a Chinese man to 8 months in prison and a 2,000 yuan ($328) fine for buying drugs from India. And last month, two couples were arrested in Guangdong Province and charged with selling "fake drugs"; the cancer treatments they brought to the country from India were considered fake because they aren't licensed for sale in China.

Meanwhile, the buying and selling continues, sometimes via more creative channels. Through an Asian version of the craft-and-art site Etsy, for instance. One intermediary helps Chinese patients get cancer treatments from India, doling them out through the site, Taobao. Patients order Indian handicrafts, and the seller ships drugs instead--along with a local newspaper and pharmacy receipts to verify their provenance. Another drug trader had an online store shuttered in a recent smuggling crackdown--but set up new ones.

The question now is whether China will continue stamping out the illicit trade without taking more official measures to open access to drug treatments. Already in the middle of a corruption-and-pricing crackdown in the pharma industry, Chinese officials could go the Indian route and force branded drugmakers to allow copies of their expensive treatments. The government has already said it would consider doing so. And China isn't above yanking patents as Indian officials have; in August, China nixed Gilead Sciences' ($GILD) patent on the HIV drug Viread.

The China Pharmaceutical Industry Research and Development Association isn't in favor of such moves, obviously; an association spokesman told NZweek that compulsory licensing would stifle Chinese innovation. Instead, governments could simply push branded drugmakers for lower prices, the spokesman said. Neither prospect sounds like an attractive one for foreign drugmakers looking to capitalize on China's fast pharma growth. 

- read the NZweek story

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