Blockbuster highlights China’s urgent need for affordable cancer drugs and generic alternatives
Stage photo of Dying to Survive  Photo:
Dying to Survive, China’s second blockbuster in real sense after Wolf Warrior 2, has raked in 1.33 billion yuan in merely four days. The comedy drama is the first Chinese-language film in 16 years getting 9 out of 10 on, a film rating website, based on 366, 340 reviews from Internet users.

Dying to Survive, by addressing a topic of social significance, is hailed by critics as a breakthrough for the country’s big screen productions, which are typically censored if sensitive issues or real-life problems in Chinese society are touched upon.

The stirring film is based on the real-life story of Lu Yong, a textile trader who was diagnosed with chronic myelocytic leukemia (CML) in 2002. After spending nearly 500,000 yuan on a brand name cancer drug in less than two years, he resorted to smuggling of a much cheaper generic alternative from India for not only himself but other patients of the blood cancer.

In 2013, Lu was put under arrest and charged later with selling fake drugs. Over a thousand leukemia patients he had helped stood out to petition for his release and their act seemed to have worked. After Lu was jailed for almost a year, the case against him was dropped after a judge ruled his act did not constitute crime because he had never personally profited from the drug sales.

With the triumph, Lu has since been compared to the hero of Dallas Buyers Club, the 2013 Oscar winning film about a Texas man who sold unregulated AIDS drugs to help fellow HIV patients in the 1980s.

Just like Lu Yong’s case, Dying to Survive has shed spotlight on a long-standing problem in the Chinese society. For years, families in the country with cancer patients have been burdened by high costs of patented drugs of big Western pharmaceutical companies. As the tear-jerking film depicts it, in some cases, cancer sufferers, with their own families being debt-laden, would choose to give up on medical treatment or even their own lives.

Lu, hailing from Wuxi, south China’s Jiangsu province, also exhausted his savings in buying Gleevec, a miracle drug considered a cure to CML. The news of his arrest for illegally transporting Indian generic medication into China made to national headlines and aroused widespread public attention at the time.

Hu Xiaoxiang, the vice president of the Jiangsu Health Law Society, has been closely watching Lu Yong’s case. He told a Chinese local media, although generic medications from India proved to be effective and cost far less compared with patented drugs produced by big Western pharmaceutical firms, Chinese law stipulates that any drugs that are not approved for import and sale in the country are considered as “fake medicines”.

Despite that, after the Lu Yong’s case, the situation has somewhat changed. In November 2014, China’s Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People's Procuratorate jointly issued a legal “explanation” which made it clear that selling a small quantity of unauthorized imported drugs without inflicting any injuries to others would not be considered illegal.

Hu believed the rule has cracked a slit for overseas purchase of generic medicines although the sector remains a grey zone without full legitimacy.

Lu was diagnosed with the leukemia in 2002 and he was jailed in 2014. For all those years, the dosage of Gleevec produced by the Swiss Novartis Pharmaceuticals cost tens of thousands of yuan per month. Now, after the drug’s patent expired and it was added onto the list of medicines covered by China’s basic insurance schemes, patients suffering from the blood cancer only need 1,000 yuan per month for the medicine.

The Modern Express, a local Chinese newspaper affiliated to China’s Xinhua News Agency, conducted an exclusive interview with Lu Yong last week, who admitted that there are now only a few people asking him to bring Indian generic drugs while he’s happy about it.

Lu told the Modern Express that over the past three years, China’s government has become efficient in pushing the reform of drug and medical management, with dramatic progress being made. And this is believed to be the reason why the film exploring the topic has finally hit the big screen.

It’s widely reported that the Chinese government has officially applied zero tariff on imported cancer drugs since May 1, 2018, as part of efforts to reduce treatment costs for cancer patients. It’s also noteworthy the move came even amidst escalating trade tensions between China and the United States with an extra 25 percent tariff first threatened and then imposed on each other’s goods worth tens of billions of US dollars.

Before the zero tariff policy, an earlier breakthrough was made in July 2017. After China’s government engaged in two rounds of negotiations with global pharmaceutical companies in 2016 and 2017, the top drug makers agree to slash prices of three dozen key medicines for cancer, diabetes and heart disease. In return, China announced in July 2017 to include the therapies of clinical value into a list of medicines covered by the country’s basic insurance system. Some “star” cancer drugs like Herceptin have since become much more affordable for Chinese patients.

And the most recent development in the field has been ascribed to the new film. China’s foreign ministry announced on Monday that India and China have reached an agreement to reduce tariffs on Chinese imports of Indian medicines, particularly cancer drugs. The new announcement was made only days after Dying to Survive became a hit and shed light on Chinese cancer patients’ demand for cheap and effective Indian drugs.

According to a report by, it is not yet clear if China has agreed to grant licenses to Indian pharma companies to sell cancer drugs in the country’s huge market.

India has long defended its right to grant licenses allowing local pharma factories to override patents and make much cheaper generic drugs. Only with the power of compulsory licensing of patents, India argued it could guarantee basic medical care for its people and safeguard national security.

Although some other underdeveloped countries like Laos and Bangladesh also adopt the so-called compulsory licensing of patents, India is the leader in the global generic meditation market.

With a far cheaper price and same level of effectiveness, generic medicines have proved to be helpful in saving lives and securing patients’ life qualities. Meanwhile, as long as medicine patents owned by top pharma companies have expired, drug makers from all around the world would be allowed to produce their own generic alternatives.

This April, China’s State Council released a special document calling for more efforts on the R&D and production of generic drugs in China. 


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