British drugs giant Astrazeneca’s great leap into China

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Astrazeneca is hailing a breakthrough in China as exports of its pioneering drugs hit £420million.

The pharmaceuticals giant has seen sales in China surge 30 per cent as the country has become its second biggest market behind the US.


Astrazeneca boss Pascal Soriot is targeting even faster growth, driven by the demand to meet the medical needs of the country’s massive and ageing population.

Millions of Chinese have gained access to healthcare as the nation’s middle-class rapidly expands.

Astrazeneca  has seen sales in China surge 30 per cent as the country has become its second biggest market behind the US

Astrazeneca has seen sales in China surge 30 per cent as the country has become its second biggest market behind the US

As part of Prime Minister Theresa May’s trade mission to China this week, Astrazeneca also announced a tie-up with Chinese tech conglomerates Alibaba and Tencent.

Its partnership with Alibaba will see patients handed digital devices to help them find the correct medicines and ensure that they are taken properly. 

With Tencent, meanwhile, it is pioneering a tracking system that will help detect counterfeit drugs.

Astrazeneca’s success in China is down to a combination of factors, not least its 25-year presence in the country.

Chronic air pollution problems in cities mean there is widespread demand for respiratory medicines – one of Astrazeneca’s specialities. But bosses also said local staff had performed strongly.

EASTERN PROMISE 

  • £420m Astrazeneca drugs exported to China every year – its second biggest market
  • 11,000 employed by Astrazeneca in China – just under one in six of all its employees
  • £4bn spent by Astrazeneca on research and development in 2016 alone

Soriot hailed 2017 as a defining year for the business, boosted by a flurry of recent drug approvals.

It is the fifth largest pharma company in the world, employing 59,700 and selling its products in more than 100 countries.

It is also a major investor in research and development, spending £4billion in 2016 alone.

Soriot, 58 , said the company’s success in China had smashed expectations. The Frenchman added: ‘China has changed dramatically in the past ten years.

‘It is now in many ways a developed country and in some ways actually ahead of the US and Europe. The population is enormous and the potential there is absolutely gigantic.’

His optimistic tone was in spite of a fall in revenues and profits at Astrazeneca. Soriot failed to meet a pledge to restore sales to 2013 levels by 2017. 

He made the pledge after fighting off a hostile takeover bid from US rival Pfizer four years ago.

But yesterday he insisted the firm was only just shy of hitting its target – if the same exchange rates were used to calculate figures.

‘I think we can say that we have delivered on that commitment,’ he said.

The company forecast yesterday it would return to full-year growth this year. It posted sales of £15.8billion for 2017, down 2 per cent, and profits of £2.6billion, down by a quarter.

Astrazeneca has been laid low in recent years as it rushes to restock its pipeline of potential blockbuster drugs – those that rack up more than $1billion of annual sales. 

This was after some of the company’s bestselling medicines fell out of patent protection, putting sales under siege from cheaper copycats.

Shares in the group yesterday rose 3.1 per cent, or 150p, to 5036p.

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