Vietnamese court orders fresh probe into major cancer drug scam

By Hai Duyen   October 29, 2017 | 08:22 pm PT
Vietnamese court orders fresh probe into major cancer drug scam
Nguyen Minh Hung (L), former CEO of a pharmaceutical firm, and Vo Manh Cuong, head of a shipping firm, are facing charges of trading fake cancer drugs. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen
Prosecutors say the original charges 'did not reflect the true nature of the crime.'

A court of appeal in Ho Chi Minh City has ordered a fresh investigation into a major cancer drug scam that riveted the nation by showing how bribery and forgery plague the country's healthcare sector.

The appellate court made the decision on Monday in response to an appeal by the city’s prosecutors, who said the charges put forward at the previous trial in August were inaccurate.

Executives from pharmaceutical companies and a shipping company in the city received up to 12 years in jail for smuggling and forging paperwork at the trial two months ago.

But prosecutors said the charges “did not reflect the true nature of the crime.”

It said the suspects had "manufactured and/or traded in fake goods", in this case medicine. The crime is punishable by death, although the revised Penal Code effective from next year has reduced the top punishment to life imprisonment.

Nguyen Minh Hung, former CEO of private pharmaceutical company VN Pharma, and his staff were accused of importing H-Capita from Canada and advertising it as a cancer drug from 2013.

In May 2014, the company won a contract from the city’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 contained low-quality capecitabine, which should not be used on humans.

Hung was sentenced to 12 years in jail in late August, as was Vo Manh Cuong, the director of shipping firm H&S which imported the drugs. Five other people involved in the case were sentenced to up to five years in jail.

Hung and Cuong are in police custody.

The court also ordered a further investigation into the health ministry's role in licensing importers and registering new drugs.

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.

Investigators are also still looking into allegations that the firm paid doctors at least $330,000 to prescribe specific brands of medicines. The company admitted to jacking up the prices of several drugs to cover the additional cost.

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