Regulator cracks down on medical price gouging

People purchase medications at a pharmacy in Chongqing on Dec 16. (CUI LI / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Market supervision and law enforcement have been enhanced to ensure the stable pricing and quality of epidemic-related drugs and materials, according to the State Administration for Market Regulation.

With the relaxation of COVID-19 prevention and control policies in December, demand for drugs and other materials related to the epidemic has skyrocketed.

To ensure that prices remain stable and that only quality products are available on the market, and to deter illegal activities aimed at exploiting the increased demand, a series of measures have been put in place to keep such actions in check, according to a recently released SAMR work plan.

The plan calls for the deployment of market regulatory authorities at all levels to engage in a special operation, which will last until the end of June, to ensure the stable price and quality of epidemic drugs and medical supplies.

The operation is a comprehensive effort to mobilize the market regulatory system to tackle illegal activities in the field of drugs and medical supplies related to the epidemic, Luo Wen, head of the SAMR, said at a meeting on Wednesday in Beijing.

He asked the authorities to respond quickly to the changing situation, enforce the law accurately, conduct practical supervision and impose strict punishment on violators.

The document asked market regulatory bodies to comprehensively strengthen supervision and law enforcement, and resolutely crack down on price gouging, fake advertising and on the infringement of intellectual property.

The authorities should also enhance oversight on the online transactions of drugs and medical supplies and the production and distribution of medicines and devices, and take multiple measures such as using monitoring and early warning systems to form a deterrence to illegal activities, it said.

Reporting and tip-offs must be handled promptly and law enforcement must maintain the market order and improve the business environment, the document said.

In an example case released by the SAMR, in Dec 2022, the market regulatory bureau of Jixi in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province conducted an inspection on a pharmacy and found that the retail price of a type of anti-epidemic drug rose from 14.5 yuan ($2.1) per box to 35 yuan without any evidence of an increase in costs. It was suspected as an illegal act of price gouging.

After further investigation, the bureau fined the pharmacy 50,000 yuan and ordered it to immediately correct the illegal behavior.

On Jan 2, the Ministry of Public Security ordered a strict crackdown on the production and sale of counterfeit epidemic drugs, as well as relevant medical devices, such as antigen testing kits, oximeters and oxygenerators.

Police forces nationwide should keep a close eye on the production, wholesale and retail of COVID-19-related medical supplies and relevant trading on online platforms, and promptly file cases of violations for investigation.

Task forces will be organized to solve serial, transregional and organized crime cases to resolutely destroy related criminal networks, the ministry said.