The detention of a liver cancer patient who made a profit selling a cancer drug before it was approved on the Chinese mainland has sparked heated public debate.
Zhai Yiping, a project manager at a Shanghai construction company, was detained by police on July 25 on suspicion of selling "fake drugs" after he imported Opdivo and sold it to other patients with a 5 per cent markup, China National Radio reported.
Opdivo, which works with the immune system to halt the growth and spread of cancer cells, was developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb, a pharmaceutical company in the United States.
China's top drug authority, the State Drug Administration, announced on June 15 that the drug had been approved for sale on the mainland. Zhai began selling it in 2016.
According to Chinese law, unapproved drugs are classified as fake medicine, and producing or selling them can result in a prison sentence of up to three years if there are no serious consequences.
However, those who cause serious harm to individuals or society, or make huge profits, can receive much tougher sentences, including the death penalty.
Zhai's lawyer, Si Weijiang from Shanghai's Debund Law Firm, said his client started to buy Opdivo from Germany for other patients he knew at the end of 2016.
Before that, he tried the drug himself for several years to combat his own cancer and found it effective, but at that time the drug was not approved for use in China and was not legally available.
The drug costs about 60,000 yuan (S$11,980) a month for liver cancer patients, so most patients only tried the drug for a few months. When they felt their condition had improved, they would turn to other cheaper drugs, Si said.
He said Zhai sold the drugs to other patients at a 5 per cent price markup, and that total sales amounted to nearly 1 million yuan, as the drug is expensive.
Si said it was not clear how many patients had purchased the drug from Zhai, but he said there were about 1,000 cancer patients in a social media account where they communicate about treatment, and Zhai was an active member.