An app that calls itself “Uber for medicine” is testing the law by helping customers buy Gardasil 9, a vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV) that has not yet been approved for the Chinese market, Beijing Youth Daily reported Tuesday.
Its market is the steady stream of mostly Chinese women who travel to Hong Kong and elsewhere to get vaccinated against the virus, which can cause cancer in the cervix and other areas. In 2016 and 2017, respectively — years later than other countries — China’s medical regulator approved two HPV vaccines: Cervarix from GlaxoSmithKline and Gardasil from Merck & Co. But the former protects against two HPV strains and the latter against four, whereas the currently unapproved Gardasil 9 protects against nine.
Many people therefore still choose to travel to get the best protection, though HPV vaccines require three injections, which means these medical tourists have to arrange three trips in half a year.
Homeincare, an app developed by Beijing Qianyi Health Management Co. Ltd., intended to solve this problem. According to Beijing Youth Daily, Homeincare said in a now-removed advertisement that patients could get the first inoculation in Hong Kong or Macau, take the other two injections home in a cooler, store them in a fridge, and find nurses through the app to complete the vaccination course.
When Sixth Tone called posing as a buyer, a customer service representative said that the package costs 7,000 yuan ($1,060), including the vaccines and two visits from a nurse to administer the injections. Homeincare cooperates with several medical institutions in both Hong Kong and Macau that will allow patients to bring the vaccines home with them, she explained.
A Homeincare manager told Beijing Youth Daily that they had consulted government departments about the legality of their program and concluded that their service is not explicitly forbidden. After the first injection is administered in Hong Kong or Macau, customers are given a prescription notice to help them bring the two others into China. Homeincare itself is not directly involved in the purchase or transport of any medical products.
An official at Beijing Health Inspection told Beijing Youth Daily that it’s difficult to say whether the scheme is illegal, but experts have questioned the safety of the service. “Using a cooler to transport vaccines is an obsolete method,” another municipal health official told the newspaper. “It’s difficult to guarantee [the vaccines’] effectiveness.”
So far, nobody has reportedly purchased Homeincare’s service, so its legality has not yet been put to the test. But one potential pitfall is the regulations on vaccines that were tightened following the uncovering of a criminal network in 2016 that involved hundreds of suspects selling vaccines that had not been properly stored or transported. The revised rules say that vaccines should be kept in a temperature-controlled environment, and that neither individuals nor companies are allowed to administer injections to a group of people.
Zhang, a 24-year-old woman who plans to travel to Hong Kong three times beginning in September to receive HPV vaccine injections, told Sixth Tone that she would never consider using the platform’s service. “If your health is a priority, you won’t worry about the time and energy,” she said.
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: A girl is inoculated with a 2-valent HPV vaccine at a hospital in Kunming, Yunnan province, Aug. 15, 2017. Kan Yunnan/IC)