Shortage of drug brings pain to breast cancer patients in China
Herceptin  Photo:
Li Xue had to undergo chemotherapy for breast cancer latest by May 16, and her doctor had hoped she could use Herceptin before the treatment, but the patient failed to find one doze of the drug in the end. “It is out of stock nationwide. I've visited many hospitals but could not find it,” Li, a resident of North China's Hebei province, told, a Shanghai-based news portal.

Demand surge had driven an effective cancer drug out of stock in China, prompting authorities to quickly approve the pharmaceutical factory producing the drug to move to a new base with improved productivity in order to address the shortage that has disrupted many patents' treatments across the country.

Herceptin is a prescription medicine used for treating breast cancer and stomach cancer. Being a targeted therapy drug, although Herceptin could not cure all types of breast cancer, it is proven to be quite effective in treating the Her2-positive breast cancer, a doctor who didn’t want to be named told, noting the drug could reduce the chance of relapse in patients and is regarded as a 'cure'.

Before last July, one unit of the “cure” would cost around 20,000 yuan, while now, after it's been added into the list of medicines covered by China's basic insurance schemes, one dose costs no more than 2,000 yuan, merely one-tenth of its original price. It's reported that the significant price cut had simulated demand and led to the current crunch.

China added Herceptin to the National Reimbursable Drugs List (NRDL) in July 2017, after its maker, Roche, a Swiss pharmaceutical company, agreed to significantly cut prices. Besides Herceptin, there were a total of three dozen treatments added to the NRDL.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security announced last July that through the new additions, an average 44 percent price cut on the drugs of clinical value was achieved compared with their tag prices in 2016. It's known that among all the 36 drugs, 31 were “Western” treatments and five were traditional Chinese medicines (TCM).

After the update, international pharmaceutical companies become more optimistic about their growth prospects in the second-largest drug market in the world, where high costs used to deny patients and their families access to imported and new drugs.

Since July 2017 when Herceptin was added into the NRDL, “all the local governments positively answered the call and within three months, the new list was implemented in most provinces (of China) at a significantly faster pace than ever before, which led to a demand surge for the medication nationwide in a short time,” Shanghai Roche Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., the Swiss drug maker's joint venture in China explained the situation in a letter to Mic366, the official WeChat account of a Chinese medical media.

Some source familiar with the matter told Mic366, “Roche didn’t expect the updated list to be put into practice by local governments so quickly and so they're not prepared for the surge in demand.” According to media reports, Herceptin undersupply emerged from this March, with patients and hospitals in places including Beijing, Shanghai, Hebei, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Guangzhou all reporting the problem.

“I was suggested by my doctor to use one dose of Herceptin every 21 days and for a whole year,” Li Xue said, worrying the problem could not be solved in short term. “I have to find the drug myself in case the treatment may be suspended.”

“The shortage would have some consequences - one is that the effectiveness of the cure may be reduced and the other is that the survival time may be shortened,” said the doctor cited by, “Without the medication, some people may lose their chance to be cured or fail to live longer.”

Roche's Shanghai joint venture told the State Drug Administration had approved its application to transfer the current production to a base boasting larger capacity, although they still need some time to relieve the nationwide undersupply considering drug factories usually need to go through time-consuming examinations and inspections for production permit.

Roche also announced to adopt a series of emergency measures. The Swiss company noted it will now adopt a “Chinese market first” policy worldwide while upgrading logistics to help with the situation, although it didn’t give a specific timetable for the undersupply to be solved.

The Mic366 article said Roche needed at least half a year to catch up with the demand in the Chinese market. “The company would first ship drugs produced in American factories to China,” it said, indicating only procedures to import biological products would need at least five months. 


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