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Dealing Dangerous Drugs

Last Tuesday, the United States and China signed an accord on pharmaceuticals and medical devices, one of fourteen agreements inked in Beijing during the eighteenth meeting of the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade. The pact will require Chinese companies that export certain products to America to register with their nation’s regulators. The general concept is that Washington can ensure the safety of items before they ever reach our shores.

Who can argue with this cooperative approach? For starters, I will. As an initial matter, we cannot trust the lives of Americans to Chinese regulators, who have shown a blatant disregard for the well-being of foreigners, not to mention their own people. Unfortunately, regulation in China does not work well. On July 10, the Chinese government hurriedly executed Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, for taking bribes to approve defective drugs that resulted in at least ten deaths in 2006. This drastic penalty followed the July 6 imposition of a death sentence on Cao Wenzhuang, a former senior official in the agency, for the same offense. Zheng and Cao were only the unfortunate ones because many, if not most, SFDA approvals are tainted by some form of bribery.

The Communist Party may one day solve the problem of corruption, but we should not risk the life of anyone on the hope that it can accomplish something that it has not been able to do after more than five decades of rule. Beijing sometimes resorts to high-profile executions when it wants to make a point, but exacting the ultimate penalty has rarely, if ever, solved underlying conditions.

The United States devoted seven months of discussions to come up with Tuesday’s pact, which covers just a small number of items. The time and effort would have been better spent expanding the testing of imports as they reach our ports and airports. Beefing up inspections at our borders is something that we are going to have to do anyway as drug companies expand their activities in China. According to the November 26 issue of Time, pharmaceutical manufacturers are shifting their research and development and testing to China, where costs are lower. “The price tag for drug trials in China can be one-tenth that in the U.S. or Europe,” the magazine reports, based on the comments of Chen Li, medical director of Shanghai-based KendleWits, which facilitates testing for major pharmaceuticals.

Pharmaceuticals, of course, pose a special problem. An anxious parent can avoid buying a Chinese-made Thomas the Tank Engine toy if he does not want his child to suck on lead paint, but a sick person who needs a certain drug usually has no such freedom of action. The risk to Americans from imported products is about to get worse, not better, because of the agreement we just signed with Beijing.


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