China s ambitious $124 billion effort to provide basic health coverage for the vast majority of its 1.3 billion citizens by 2011 is a brimming opportunity for large global drugmakers.
As growth in the U.S. and European markets remains sluggish, many giant pharmaceutical companies are expanding their sales forces, distribution channels and research operations in China to tap into the country\'s robust drug market -- expected to expand at about 22 percent annually over the next five years, said Mandy Chui, senior principal of IMS Health Inc.
Chui is the China expert at IMS Health, which provides market data on the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.
\"We see companies continuing to invest in China because the other markets are not growing,\" Chui said in an interview. \"For companies, (China\'s growth) is certainly a good story to tell to the Street, right?\"
With a huge and aging population, rapid urbanization and adoption of Western lifestyles that give rise to hypertension, obesity and other diseases, China is poised to become the world\'s third biggest pharmaceutical market by 2013, up from its current No. 5 spot, said Chui.
The $24.5 billion market is expected to swell to $68 billion to $78 billion by 2013, Chui said, leaving it behind only the United States and Japan.
\"China is taking over from Germany and France,\" she said. \"It\'s like a big wake-up call. If they (Big Pharma) are not in there at this point in time, all of them are not going to grow.\"
In the race to penetrate the China market, she said European drug makers such as Bayer AG, AstraZeneca PLC and Sanofi-Aventis SA have taken the lead.
U.S. drugmakers were once content to grow in their home market but are now eager to \"play catch up,\" she said.
Pfizer Inc Chief Executive Officer Jeff Kindler said on Wednesday that China is an increasingly important priority for the world\'s biggest drugmaker, which aims to make vaccines a big part of its China effort.
\"Not only is it necessary to be there, we are there,\" Kindler said in a separate interview.
Chui said drugs for diseases commonly seen in China, such as hepatitis B, will have blockbuster potential.
An estimated 30 million of China\'s people have chronic infections with hepatitis B -- a virus that can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
Many large pharmaceutical companies have geared up their outreach efforts to increase treatment rate for the liver disease that kills more than 300,000 Chinese a year, Chui said.
Bristol-Myers Squibb Co\'s hepatitis B drug Baraclude -- a pill introduced in 2006 -- has the clear market lead in China over GlaxoSmithKline PLC\'s antivirals Heptodin and Hepsera, Bayer AG\'s Nexavar and several interferons, she said.
While no companies have any products of blockbuster scope, which typically means annual revenues of $1 billion or more, in China, Chui said some could arrive within five to 10 years.
Despite the price gap between generics and branded drugs, branded drugs that have lost patent protection still are favored in China as they are often deemed to have better quality and enjoy brand loyalty among large city hospitals, Chui said.
However, drugmakers from the United States, Europe and Japan still have to face tough competition from local Chinese companies, which have stronger sales and distribution channels across China\'s diverse provinces, especially in remote rural areas.
Chinese companies are clamoring to enter the market once Baraclude loses its patent protection in 2011, Chui said.
More than 30 companies have submitted applications seeking approval of the generic version of the drug, she said.
A Bristol-Myers spokesman, Brian Henry, said: \"We have patents in force and patents pending in China (for Baraclude). We do not comment about potential competitors.\"
Other top-selling drugs in China that are made by multinational companies include blood-clot preventer Plavix, ulcer drug Losec, oral diabetes treatment Glucobay, the Novolin brand of insulin and antibiotic Avelox.
Multinationals currently hold 30 percent of the market with local drug companies taking 70 percent.
\"Five years from now, I don\'t see any substantial change (to that ratio),\" Chui said. \"The whole pie is growing bigger.\"
China\'s healthreform effort also includes the construction of 2,000 new county hospitals and upgrades of 30,000 township medical centers.
Chui said expansion of medical infrastructure will benefit makers of medical devices, vaccines and companies that specialize in medical imaging, diagnostics and electronic medical records.
(Reporting by I-Ching Ng, additional reporting by Ransdell Pierson; editing by Gerald E. McCormick)