China Eases Rules on Cheap Drug Imports to Fight Chronic Diseases

The lack of access to drugs has taken on more urgency as the Chinese government grapples with the mounting health problems of its 1.4 billion people. Heart disease, strokes, diabetes and chronic lung disease account for 80 percent of deaths in China, according to a World Bank report in 2011.

Cancer diagnoses in China are soaring, and survival rates are low. About 4.3 million cancer cases were diagnosed in 2015, or almost 12,000 cases a day. That is nearly double the rate five years before, according to official figures.

In China, the public has long expressed frustration with their lack of access to effective drugs to treat those kinds of diseases. A 2018 film, “Dying to Survive,” was based on the real-life story of a Chinese leukemia patient who smuggled generic drugs from India to save himself and others. A box office hit, it was almost universally lauded for shedding light on the difficulties of getting cancer drugs in China. The movie’s popularity prompted Premier Li Keqiang to call for speeding up price cuts for the medication.

Even the rich in China contend that red tape and stringent regulatory rules prevent them from getting access to new drugs that are approved in the United States, and many say they are forced to fly overseas for treatment.

Yuan Jie, a senior official with the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, a top group of Chinese lawmakers, said the decision to redefine the scope of counterfeit drugs was “a response to the concerns of the people,” according to an official transcript.

In a statement, the National Medical Products Administration said the government would reduce punishment for the distribution of such drugs. If no harm is caused or no treatment is delayed, the parties can be exempt from punishment. And if the circumstances are deemed to be “relatively minor,” the parties involved will face “lighter penalties” if they are importing a “small amount” of drugs.

Drug approvals, while accelerating, remain dauntingly backlogged in China. Until October 2017, pharmaceuticals approved in the United States and Europe had to go through an extensive vetting process in China.