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Drug Trafficking In China: The Gray Area

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

By Jay Zhou

Graphic by Madeline Lee, Graphics Editor

China’s aging population is increasingly stricken with deadly ailments such as cancer and diabetes. The country’s rudimentary health care system is falling behind and doesn’t cover the majority of associated expensive treatments and drugs.

In addition to the underdeveloped health care system, major bureaucratic hurdles and the endless drug approval process keep life-saving medications out of reach for millions who desperately need them. Pharmaceuticals approved in the U.S. and Europe have to go through another extensive vetting process. Even if that step is complete, it is still unknown whether the insurance company will cover foreign drugs. To stay alive, some patients and their families have established associations and networks, where dealers run underground pharmacies and trade smuggled medications from other countries for lower prices. For instance, a medicine for liver cancer treatment, Nexavar, costs about $7,000 a month, but an illegal Indian equivalent, Soranib, costs only $300. Many of the smuggled drugs in China come from Indian companies and are comparable to those made by international drug corporations, even using the same active ingredients. The multinational pharmaceutical companies have long held grudges against their Indian counterparts, who have been granted licenses from the Indian government which allow them to bypass the patents owned by international drug giants. However, there are no clear laws that could be used to establish a definite regulation and support medicines’ international patents. Therefore, many factories in countries like India are still mass-producing those so-called “fake” but lifesaving medicines. All the drug giants can rely on are the governments of the destinations of the smuggled drugs to confiscate the items and punish the smugglers; for instance, on May 24, 2017, police raided more than 160 locations in Beijing and several other cities, seizing 303 cases of illegal drugs for Hepatitis C and cancer smuggled from India.

The use of unapproved medicine, however, not only presents medical risks, but is also a slippery slope, one that may eventually hinder future biomedical research. In a study published in January of 2010 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers estimated that U.S. biomedical research is about $100 billion annually with 60% of the funding contributed by the pharmaceutical industry; clearly, a large portion of the pharmaceutical industry’s profit is used to support future medical research. And considering the heavy costs of researching new drugs, a process that requires countless failures and retrials, the smuggling of medicine, though certainly saving lives and preventing countless families from entering poverty, is killing the investor profit of the pharmaceutical industry; thus, slowly suffocating future research of drugs for other diseases.

The current situation poses a difficult question for all, one whose solution must consider the multifaceted complexity of the issue. To do so, it is clear that leaders of countries and medical corporations must work closely to ensure that their next steps not only help the impoverished patients relying on illegal drug smuggling, but also ensure the continued funding of future research in the pharmaceutical industry.


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