A Chinese film on the plight of a leukaemia patient highlights the pressing need for China to pave the way for import of Indian cancer drugs, far cheaper than their western counterparts, according to a state-run media report.
New Delhi has been pressing Beijing to allow Indian pharma products, especially the cancer curing medicines, which are cheaper than the multinational drugs, to address the USD 51 billion deficit in about USD 84 billion bilateral trade.
Though a few Indian pharma companies operate in China, none have any approval from China's Food and Drug administration to export the generic or cancer-related drugs, the Global Times reported.
The report said Indian firms complain of long procedures for trials in China spanning to years which have made them disinterested. The Indian drugs are, however, smuggled into the country due to heavy demand, it added.
In May this year, China exempted 28 drugs from import tariffs, including cancer drugs, but they are not applicable to Indian drugs as they were not permitted to sell in the country.
About 4.3 million people are diagnosed with cancer annually in China, according to a report by China Central Television.
Meanwhile, Chinese black comedy "Dying to Survive", which hit mainland theatres yesterday, triggered hot discussions on cheap Indian generic drug imports, with experts saying China should allow more to be imported and greater investment should be made in its own generic drugs, the report said.
The film is based on the true story of Lu Yong, a leukaemia patient, who imports and sells less expensive generic anti-cancer drugs from India for chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) patients on the Chinese mainland who can't afford the exorbitant cost of a drug produced by a Swiss pharmaceutical giant.
Between 2006 and 2013, Lu helped hundreds of CML patients buy a generic drug produced by India's Natco Pharma for around 200 yuan (USD 30) per month, which claims to be as effective as the foreign drug but costs more than 20,000 yuan (over USD 3,100) each month.
Lu was charged with selling counterfeit drugs in 2014 in central China's Hunan Province, but prosecutors withdrew the charges in 2015.
Lu told the Nanjing-based Modern Express on Wednesday that he is still taking the India-made drugs, even though the foreign drug has been included in the national health insurance programme in many provinces and patients' monthly costs have been reduced to around 1,000 yuan.
Experts said most of the Indian generic drugs available in China are anti-cancer drugs, which remain popular because they are said to be more effective than similar China-made generic drugs that are often in scarce supply.
Chinese manufactures are not allowed to produce generic versions of some western drugs as they have a patent protection period of between 30 and 50 years, Tian Guangqiang, assistant research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.
He said that this requires China to import expensive western drugs, and most are not covered by the country's health insurance.
Cai Jiangnan, a healthcare research fellow at the China Europe International Business School, believes China's healthcare system is also to blame for the high cost of imported drugs because hospitals are required to cover their costs by overcharging for drugs.
He said only a few Indian generic drugs are officially allowed to be sold in China, because the drug testing procedures in the country differ from those in India.
"All of these factors have forced Chinese patients to turn to illegal agencies to obtain cheap Indian drugs, and the quality and safety cannot be guaranteed as they are not inspected or authorised by the Chinese government," Tian said.
Chinese agents selling Indian generic drugs were easy to find on China's internet search engine Baidu and online shopping platform Taobao, the report said.
China should increase Indian generic drug imports, strengthen cooperation with Indian pharmacies in developing generic drugs, while increasing investment in developing new drugs, experts suggested.
They noted that the Chinese government has taken measures as cancer drugs are life-savers and should be affordable to everyone who needs them, according to the report.