Leniency from China court in Dying to Survive cancer drug case

Alice Yan

A man who bought cancer medication from Germany to sell to patients in mainland China has received a suspended jail sentence from a Shanghai court in a case that echoes the plot of last year’s box office hit Dying to Survive.

Zhai Yiping, 47, was given a relatively light sentence of three years in prison, suspended for three years, for illegally doing business, online news portal Thepaper.cn reported on Monday.

Zhai’s arrest in July last year led to a public outcry and, ultimately, a change in the law. More than 100 patients wrote to the court pleading for mercy for Zhai, who was charged just two weeks after Dying to Survive – based on the true story of a leukaemia patient who smuggled generic drugs from India for himself and others – made its debut in Chinese cinemas.

Dubbed China’s Dallas Buyers Club, the film, which earned rave reviews and made US$200 million in its opening weekend, struck a chord in China where cancer treatments are unaffordable for many. Weeks after its release, Premier Li Keqiang weighed in, urging regulators to “speed up price cuts for cancer drugs” and “reduce the burden on families”.

Why China’s premier used a hit film to push for cheaper cancer drugs

Zhai was originally charged with selling fake drugs. The drugs were genuine, but deemed fake on a technicality under Chinese law as they had not been approved for use in China.

Amid public pressure, the National People’s Congress, the country’s top legislative body, amended the law in August this year to exclude medications available overseas that had not yet received market approval in China from being classified as fake drugs.

According to China Youth Daily, some of the medications bought by Zhai from Germany had been available in China since last August, at a lower price than in their country of origin.

‘Dying to Survive’ gets real: China cuts price of life-saving cancer drugs

In its verdict, handed down last month, the Shanghai Railway Transportation Court, found Zhai had bought cancer drugs from Germany with the help of a man surnamed Guo. The drugs were taken into China by flight attendants and sold by Zhai through social media, earning a total revenue of 4.7 million yuan (US$670,000).

The court said Zhai’s light punishment was due to his “secondary and assistant” role, as well as his confession and guilty plea. Zhai, who is on bail, said he would not appeal against the decision, the news website reported. It is not clear what punishment Guo, who was also arrested, has received.

More than 4.29 million new cancer cases are reported in China each year and 2.81 million people die from cancers annually.

Although most of the population is included in public medical insurance, the scheme only covers basic medical care and excludes many foreign-made, life-saving cancer medications.

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