A shortage of a lifesaving blood cancer drug has prompted the Chinese health authorities to act on shortages in such much-needed medicines.
Shortages in domestically-made mercaptopurine, a drug used to treat children with acute lymphocytic leukemia, were recently reported across the country.
As of Nov 20, a batch of 2.95 million tablets had been produced and were being delivered, an effort described as an emergency response by the National Health and Family Planning Commission.
Zhejiang Zhebei Pharmaceutical told Xinhua on Nov 22 that it has expedited production of 15,000 bottles of mercaptopurine tablets, which would reach hospitals across the country within a week.
The company based in Deqing City, East China’s Zhejiang province, is the only one of six authorized makers of the medication still making the drug.
Tan Guojun, deputy general manager of the company, described the demand in China as “small”: around 50,000 bottles a year.
“Sales generate only about 1.5 million yuan ($230,000), around 2 percent of our total revenue,” Tan said, noting that the company’s tablets sell for one fifth of imported medication.
He said the company had paused production to build a new production line for the pills.
On Nov 17, production resumed and by the evening of Nov 21, 15,000 bottles of tablets had been loaded for delivery.
“The company will continue to produce the medicine according to demand and ensure a stable supply of the drug,” said Tan.
Reports of shortages in medicine in China are not unusual, most involving essential supplies of low-priced medicine, specialized or first-aid drugs.
“The quick resumption of mercaptopurine production is due to improved monitoring of drug shortages,” said Zhang Feng, deputy director of the department of drug policy and essential medicine of the National Health and Family Planning Commission.
The health authorities had identified early warning signals for a mercaptopurine shortage earlier this year and sped up approval for companies to produce the medicine.
Zhang said resumption of the supply would have taken about six months without the early warning.
Niu Zhengqian, vice-president of the Chinese Pharmaceutical Enterprises Association, said medicines with low prices and small demand faced shortages when production costs rose and profit margins fell.
“When the hand of the market does not work, government intervention is needed,” said the commission’s Zeng Yixin.
From Nov 22, several government agencies, including the commission and Food and Drug Administration, will consult pharmaceutical manufacturers on ways to handle 27 drugs on the shortage list. In the meantime, the government will extend monitoring from 500 medical institutions to include production and distribution entities.
“Shifting the focus from users to producers will be helpful,” said Xiao Lu, deputy director of the Science and Technology Development Center of Chinese Pharmaceutical Association.
The government should accelerate implementation of a system which requires pharmaceutical manufacturers to give early notification if they plan to suspend production, Xiao said.