Words by Louise Rogers
China. A nation of meteoric expansion, having quintupled its share of global output in fewer than 40 years. The start of Xi Jinping’s presidency in 2012 introduced the concept of the Chinese Dream: to lead China to greater prosperity, create a better quality of life, and secure international dominance in modern industries and technology. Although China’s nascent pharmaceutical industry began gaining momentum some years before, in 2012, China’s pharma market became the second largest in the world, and in 2017 the industry generated over $123 billion. Such prolific growth raises a fascinating question: what is fuelling China’s unstoppable engine in phenomenal pharma development?
To answer this question, we must travel nearly 5,000 miles across the globe, to the 2018 FT Global Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Conference in London, where the majority
of attendees vote that China will lead the world in innovation by 2025, “and there are a couple of fundamental reasons why”, explains Mark Mallon, EVP, Global Product Portfolio Strategy, Medical & Corporate Affairs, AstraZeneca. “The government’s real commitment to improving healthcare for its citizens through innovative medicines and leveraging digital to improve efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare systems.”
In 2017 the Chinese pharma industry generated over $123 billion
Speedy approval of certain medicines followed the country’s 2015 regulatory reform, which aimed to improve China’s drug review process by increasing efficiency and encouraging drug innovation. “We got approval in less than 8 months from the time we submitted to the time we received the approval”, comments Mallon on AstraZeneca’s drug Tagrisso, one of the first medicines to get approved under the new priority review pathway. Furthermore, late 2018 saw a watershed moment for China, with the approval of fruquintinib, the country’s first home-grown drug to be approved by Chinese regulators. Christian Hogg, CEO, Chi-Med, developer of fruquintinib, comments: “It was the government listening to us [Chi-Med] and the other multinational companies in China trying to bring medicines to patients quickly and efficiently. Their listening is why the reforms have had great effect. It’s taken a long time and it has been extremely difficult but, with persistence and integrity, China has proven it is possible. In my opinion, 2025 is conservative.”
Mallon’s second point about China’s future success in innovation was leveraging digital to improve efficiency. China is famous for its low-tech manufacturing, with factories in Guangdong churning out electronics at a fraction of the cost compared to any European plant. But, with fewer than two physicians per 1,000 people and a geographical landscape resulting in many individuals needing to travel many miles to seek better treatment, there is an urgent need for the country to specialise in digital healthcare. Representing Babylon Health at the event, Umang Patel, Clinical Director, discusses how the company plans to put affordable, accessible healthcare into the hands of the many citizens.
He notes that, in reducing geographical barriers, digital technology has the potential to offer holistic healthcare, and explains: “So, in China, if we take WeChat and Babylon’s integrations using AI, then we have something that is not only scalable but also frictionless, and what is needed to deliver better health outcomes.”
In stark contrast to the ancient Great Wall so synonymous with the nation, the likes of Babylon and other pharma companies opening facilities suggest that China is ready to welcome foreign business. However, with the drumbeats of trade tensions getting louder between China and the US throughout 2018, the panel is questioned as to whether there is still a risk of protectionism within China regarding pharma and digital health.
If we take WeChat and Babylon’s integrations using AI, then we have something that is not only scalable but also frictionless
“I think, 15 years ago, China was very protectionist in pharmaceuticals, but the unmet medical need trumps protectionism (no pun intended)”, says Hogg. “I’ve seen protectionism just melt away over the last 10 years, because, at the end of the day, if you have a therapy that is genuinely going to benefit and help patients then that’s more important than any tariff – it’s more important than anything.”
Yuan Xu, CEO, Legend Biotech, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-registered GenScript Biotech Corporation, comments: “In order to succeed, we need to be open-minded because protectionism could mean isolation and that is not good.” She comments on Legend’s decision to expand globally at the beginning of 2018, opening operations in Europe and the US. “Each country and each region have their weaknesses and strengths; China is advanced in early discovery and in the interface between biology and AI; however, we do not have much talent in clinical development, medical affairs, or commercial manufacturing. We need to therefore be leveraging that talent in the other regions.”
At the heart of China’s impressive bid for the pharma throne is the willingness to change from its traditional mindset and let down its great walls to welcome foreign investment, exemplifying the adaptability and forward thinking required to become a world leader of innovation. China is creating new waves that some perhaps did not anticipate, and the views of the panellists certainly support the current optimism about the country’s future regarding the development of life-changing medicines.