News from China gives us even more pause to reflect on the access to medicines scenario. The situation in the US where there are no good excuses for unaffordable medicines, pales in comparison to this chilling tale of a patient whose actions to secure the life-saving drug imatinib mesylate at an affordable price, has resulted in his criminal prosecution.
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.
His crime? Selling fake drugs and breaking a law about purchase of international credit cards. What Lu did was considered criminal because any drug produced in or imported into China without the government’s approval is classified as a “fake drug,” and Lu purchased international credit cards online to facilitate the transactions. China.org.cn reported that:
The defendant, Lu Yong, was diagnosed with chronic myelocytic leukemia in 2002. He was prescribed Gleevec, a drug produced by Swiss drug-maker Novartis, which cost 23,500 yuan (US$ 3,775) per month, far too expensive for average Chinese families. Lu was even more depressed since the expenses of treating leukemia are not covered by China’s medical insurance system.
Lu later found out that India produced a generic drug which was comparable to Gleevec but which cost only 4,000 yuan, about 17 percent of the cost of Gleevec. He took the medicine himself and found it effective. Later, Lu began helping several thousand fellow patients buy the drug, since the purchasing process was difficult and some patients were not able to fill out the English purchase forms.
Meanwhile, Lu’s trial has been postponed due to his health problems, and some 300 fellow patients with CML have signed an online petition asking for his release.
Also of significance is the astronomical price of Gleevec in China, said to be the highest in the world, which led Lu to seek an alternative. As a point of comparison, Costco’s US online pharmacy is now selling a 30-day supply of the standard 400mg dose of Gleevec for $9022.05.