A long overdue step to tackling cancer

China has finally used its market power to bring down the price of life-saving drugs, which could benefit millions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2018, 9:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2018, 10:29pm

China has long had the market power – in the form of the world’s largest consumer base – to break the pricing power of Big Pharmaceutical. Instead cosy and sometimes corrupt relations between drug companies and mainland hospitals and doctors have prevailed, often making the best medical care unaffordable to ordinary Chinese. An egregious example has been life-saving cancer drugs.

It was dramatised earlier this year by a low-budget movie called Dying to Survive, about a man who smuggles unapproved generic drugs from India that Chinese leukaemia patients can afford.

The raising of awareness has prompted the government finally to take decisive steps to make a difference by negotiating drastic price reductions with the drug makers, mostly international giants such as Novartis, Pfizer and Merck. Officials may have leveraged market access, but in reality negotiations were not that simple, being complicated by the US-China trade war and the inclusion of pharmaceuticals in China’s “Made in 2025” innovation and technology strategy, viewed as a threat by the United States.

‘Dying to Survive’ gets real: China cuts price of life-saving cancer drugs

As a result, China has now included 17 life-saving cancer drugs in its national public insurance. The move says something about the plight of China’s cancer patients, and the difference to survival times and rates that this overdue step could make, that all of these drugs are considered clinically necessary and effective for patients suffering from a wide range of solid and blood tumours, according to the State Medical Insurance Administration.

China’s cancer rates have been soaring, driven by growing numbers of over-60s, heavy smoking among men, unhealthy diets and exposure to pollution. The National Cancer Center last year said there were 4.29 million new cases every year and 2.81 million deaths.

China has vowed to improve the five-year cancer survival rate by 15 percentage points by 2030. The rate stood at 30 per cent in 2015, half the US level. If the scale of some price reductions negotiated by officials is any guide, the target may not be unrealistic. For example erbitux, a treatment for colorectal cancer as well as certain types of head and neck cancers manufactured by Merck, has come down from 4,200 yuan to 1,295 yuan, the lowest globally.