Leukemia patients around the country are carefully watching the trial of Lu Yong, the first man to ever face criminal charges for selling Indian medicine in China.
Lu, who has been struggling with leukemia for more than a decade, faces charges of credit card fraud and selling fake medicine. His trial was scheduled to begin on November 28 but it has been bumped to an unknown date on account of his health.
Hundreds of leukemia patients and their relatives signed and submitted a joint letter to the court begging for Lu to be exempted from criminal penalty.
Lu was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2002. Following his doctor’s recommendation, Lu began the search for a bone marrow donor and started taking Gleevec, a cancer-fighting drug manufactured by Swiss Novartis Pharmaceutical Company. A single box of Gleevec costs 23,000 yuan on the domestic market and it is not covered by state insurance.
“During my first two years of treatment I took on 800,000 yuan of debt to pay for my medicine,” Lu told a reporter at Huangshang Newspaper. “I could hardly continue.”
In 2004, Lu found a substitute for Gleevec. “By chance, I read an English report on the Internet. It said many leukemia patients in Korea use a version of the medicine produced by the Indian Pharmaceutical Company,” he said.
Called Veenat, the drug is known to Chinese leukemia patients as “Indian Gleevec.” Its cost has fallen from 3,000 yuan per box to only 200 yuan during the last decade.
Lu first purchased Veenat through an online medicine retailer in Japan. After three months on the drug, he found his symptoms had improved dramatically. He then started to purchase it from Indian Pharmaceutical Company directly with the help of his business contacts in India.
Other Chinese leukemia patients were eager to try the medicine, but most lacked the English skills necessary to purchase it from abroad. Lu gradually became a middleman, helping them to bulk order the drug from the Indian company. Later, in order to make payments easier, he took out several credit cards at the bank to use for resolving Internet transactions.
It was the cards that led to his arrest.
“I had no idea the online platform I used to resolve payments was run by an illegal group engaged in buying and selling credit cards. The police suddenly showed up at my door,” Lu said.
While Lu admits to being an unwitting participant in credit fraud, he rejects the charge that he was selling fake medicine.
“It’s not fake medicine when you consider its curative effects. I was not even making money from its sale,” he said.
China’s drug laws define “fake medicine” as any drug manufactured or imported without the government’s approval.
Veenat is prohibited from being imported on account of patent protection. Chinese leukemia patients who are unable to afford Swiss Gleevec are forced to rely on “underground trading” to stay alive. Faced with a choice between the black market and certain death, few choose to greet the reaper.
“High medicine prices are the heart of the issue,” said Xiao Zesheng, a professor at Nanjing University. Strong regulations to rein in drug prices will be the only way to cut off the underground demand.