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"Dying to Survive": humanizing the high cost of lifesaving medication
By:Ma Yichuan  |  From:english.eastday.com  |  2018-07-20 17:14

After a stunning opening weekend, Wen Muye’s debut feature Dying To Survive seems well on its way to becoming the top-grossing film in China this year. It dramatizes the remarkable true story of Leukemia patient Lu Yong, who became a folk hero when he imported generic anti-cancer drugs from India to China to supply fellow patients suffering from chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) who could not afford the cost of the domestically available medication. Arrested for promoting counterfeit drugs in 2013, the charges against Lu were eventually dropped following a public outcry by over 1,000 patients whose lives had been extended by his efforts. As the presence of comedy star Xu Zheng in the lead role suggests, this Chinese version of Dallas Buyer’s Club(2013) features caustic humor, while at the same time evoking profound reflection on the harsh reality it sheds light on.

Passing the strict censorship, the movie, which focuses on the predicament of the patients, presents several interrelated and complex dilemmas concerning the drug companies, national medical system and law enforcement. Each side of the story is justified. The pharmaceutical companies price the drugs rather high during the patent protection period so that they have adequate money for the next round of arduous research and development. The police have to arrest the folk hero because the smuggled drugs, although effective, are deemed illegal by the state’s regulations and therefore they must arrest the smugglers. Patients, having suffered the tragedy of catching such diseases, are financially worn out by the medical costs and forced to resort to illegal Indian counterfeits just to survive. The tangled moral struggle depicted by this heart-wrenching story nevertheless leaves its audience depressed about the medical circumstances faced by a significant number of unfortunate people.

The movie is not too pessimistic, however, as we learn that starting in 2014, the Development and Reform Commissionand the State Department have pushed forward a series of opinions and attempts toward reducing the cost of the expensive medicines in question. In 2018, 19 provinces have included Novartis’ Gleevec, the original medicine in the movie, in their medical insurance while China has started to implement a zero-tariff policy on all imported medicines. The survival probability of chronic myeloid leukemia has risen dramatically from only 30% in 2002 to 85% in 2018.

In addition, the movie, now reaching a gross box office of 2.5 billion RMB, has caught the attention of the national leadership. Premier Li Keqiang recently made the comment that “cancer is now the number one killer that depletes the resources of the entire household.” The premier also urges responsible departments to quickly conclude the tariff negotiation and medical insurance reform in order to ensure that the medicines that are critical for patients’livelihoodundergo significant price drops.

In the meantime, Chinese pharmaceutical companies are also catching up to produce affordable drugs for the patients. For example, Henlius, a Shanghai based company valued at over 10 billion RMB, has developed 11 products targeting tumors. Capable of world level research and manufacturing, these domestic companies are going to greatly lower medicine cost and bring hope to the patients.