I wish I was joking about the racy headline above. The United States is not the only great power in which citizens go without medication because of cost. The cancer drug Gleevec (imatinib), made by Novartis, costs 23,500 yuan, or about U.S. $3,783, per month, in China. Gleevec is not covered by health insurance in China so people there must pay for it out of pocket. Ten years ago, Lu Yong was diagnosed with chronic myelocytic leukemia and was prescribed Gleevec. After facing bankruptcy due to his drug costs, Lu discovered a generic version of Gleevec, called Veenat, and began purchasing it by mail-order from India where it is an approved drug, at a cost of only 3,000 yuan, or about $482, per month — 87% less than the brand name drug.
Lu’s condition improved quickly using the generic version. He began to help people with leukemia who he met online obtain Veenat. Now, according to the English edition of Caixin, an independent Beijing-based media outlet, he is facing criminal charges for credit card fraud and selling counterfeit medication. The same story was covered by official Chinese media under the headline “Leukemia patient prosecuted for buying pills overseas.” Lu has helped 1,000 people with leukemia obtain treatment. Three hundred of them are petitioning the authorities to have his name cleared.
The medications involved are real and clearly life-saving! So why is Lu being prosecuted for counterfeit drugs? Under Chinese law, any drug not specifically licensed for sale in China, even a genuine medication lawfully manufactured by an authorized drug company, is considered counterfeit.
The charge of credit card fraud was based on Lu’s using a foreign credit card to make the purchases. Lu said he did so because using domestic Chinese bank-issued credit cards for international purchases is nearly impossible.
Lu was not charged for procuring his own cancer medication. The charges were for directly facilitating the purchase of the drug for 1000 people, who consequently regard Lu as a hero.
When people can’t afford to obtain life-saving medication locally, the U.S, and all countries, should consider themselves morally obligated to expressly permit their citizens to obtain it internationally.