China should invest more in researching and developing new drugs, as well as intellectual property protection, even though generic versions of existing brand-name drugs can bring short-term benefits, said Margaret Chan, former director-general of the World Health Organization.
"Inexpensive generic drugs from India may play an important role in helping patients in poorer countries and regions, but China should not completely copy India's model because the country is capable of creating innovative new drugs, original ones," she said.
Chan made the remark on Thursday after watching the Chinese box-office hit Dying to Survive, a film about a man smuggling cheap versions of leukemia medications from India for resale to patients in China.
The film triggered a written instruction from the central government highlighting the urgency of reducing drug prices and ensuring adequate supplies as public discussion heated up after its release.
"In the long term, it's better for the country to create its own brand-name drugs," Chan said.
She called on the government to roll out more regulations to protect the intellectual property of research-based drug manufacturers to foster innovation.
"Based on my work experience at the WHO, we must protect intellectual property as an incentive to encourage research into original, better drugs," she said.
In China, the success rate of cancer drug development is less than 2 percent, and the average R&D cost is over $700 million, according to figures provided in April by the National Health Commission.
Chan said patent protection could be a driver for price increases, but better health insurance policies and more awareness of corporate social responsibility can help ease the pressure on those who cannot afford medicine.
At the State Council's executive meeting on Wednesday, the expansion of direct settlements for transprovincial medical expenses was approved. The new measure primarily benefits migrant workers and entrepreneurs.
"I'm glad to see the establishment of good policies like these. The next step is to ensure stronger enforcement," Chan said.
In addition, she said, she was "shocked and distressed" by the recent vaccine scandal involving Changchun Changsheng, a major vaccine producer in northeastern China that made and sold about 250,000 faulty doses.
"A well-designed supervision system does not necessarily guarantee safe production," she said. "The key is for drug companies to report their flaws to the public and regulators immediately, and for the government to take action and start investigating at once."
Chan, who stepped down from the WHO in June after 10 years in office, is now president of the first global health meeting of the Boao Forum for Asia, which will be held on Jan 10 and 11 in China.