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Vietnam’s health ministry under scrutiny over cancer drug scam

By Hoang Thuy   August 30, 2017 | 04:10 am PT
Vietnam’s health ministry under scrutiny over cancer drug scam
Former members of VN Pharma, a private pharmaceutical company, stand trial in Ho Chi Minh City for forging paperwork to distribute fake cancer drugs. Photo by VnExpress/Hai Duyen
The PM urges inspectors to take the issue 'seriously' as it has chipped away at public trust in the health care sector.

Vietnam's government has ordered an investigation into the Ministry of Health's role in a headline-grabbing scandal that resulted in the former bosses of a pharmaceutical company going to jail last week for forging paperwork to distribute fake cancer drugs.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday that government inspectors must take the issue “seriously” as it concerns public health.

The Government Inspectorate has been asked to check how the ministry has registered new drugs and licensed importers.

The case has caused the public to lose trust in the health care sector, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam said Wednesday.

Last Friday, six former executives and staff members of VN Pharma, a private pharmaceutical company in Ho Chi Minh City, received two to 12 years imprisonment for drug smuggling and forging paperwork.

The court found the company had been importing H-Capita and advertising it as a cancer drug from Canada since 2013.

In May 2014, VN Pharma won a contract from HCMC’s health department to supply cancer drugs by offering a suspiciously low price, prompting the health ministry to ask police to investigate.

The firm’s customs declarations said the drug was manufactured by Helix Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Canada, but investigators later discovered that the company did not exist.

Documents vouching for the drug’s quality, including ostensibly Canadian-issued certificates and the signature and stamp of the Vietnamese Embassy in Canada, turned out to be fake.

The true origin of the drug remains unclear, but tests conducted by health authorities confirmed that up to 97 percent of them contained low-quality capecitabine, which should not be used on humans.

Leading oncology hospitals in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have said no patients have been prescribed the drug in question.

The investigation also revealed that the firm allegedly handed over at least $330,000 to doctors to prescribe specific brands of medicines. The company admitted to jacking up the prices of several imported drugs to cover the additional cost.

The court has ordered a further investigation to identify the doctors and hospitals that accepted the bribes.

The brother-in-law of health minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien is an executive at VN Pharma; but he has not been implicated in the scam.

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