SciClone looks at China through a long lens on oncology, sales channels and biotech

What is the landscape in China going to look like in a few years as high-profile reforms move ahead and a swath of new biotechs gear up? One company has been there as well--but during a tougher business and regulatory environment--and shares some thoughts.

Friedhelm Blobel--Courtesy of BioWorld via YouTube

SciClone ($SCLN) CEO and President Friedhelm Blobel chatted in a telephone interview with FiercePharmaAsia about the near-decade he has helmed the company with a primary focus in China aimed at building sales and regulatory pathways for specialty pharmaceuticals across oncology, infectious diseases and cardiovascular disorders.

His insights range on everything from the potential path of biotechs to prospects for online prescription sales.

"There are now about 80 to 100 biotechs, many started by returnee Chinese executives, that are going quite strongly," Blobel said. "This is a two-way flow and that is new."

For Blobel, the most important change for China in pharmaceuticals is that the "ecosystem is building" and that doors are opening as a result. Blobel joined the firm in 2006, but SciClone is nearly two decades old in China, starting in 1996 and originally focused on selling Zadaxin, a synthetic version of thymosin alpha 1, and is still at it.

In fact, Blobel said, sales of the product are growing at 15% annually and rose 17% alone in the second quarter of 2015, helping to keep a staff of 500 sales reps busy, some from a 2011 acquisition of domestic firm NovaMed that required a shakeup to get right and fleshed out a learning curve on China M&A.

"That originally didn't work out too well," Blobel said. "We had to hire a new China CEO and put in a new support structure to integrate the local firm from HR to our regulatory team."

But the learning curve helped when opportunities to expand the product portfolio came along to market for other companies that now include oncology products Holaxan, Mesna and Endoxan for Baxter ($BAX) and Methotrexate, Farlutal and Estracyt for Pfizer ($PFE).

It has also in-licensed GBT's DC Bead, an embolic bead delivered through a minimally invasive, nonsurgical procedure to block the blood flow to tumors.

The company also has development deals for products such as Angiomax, an anticoagulant indicated in patients undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention, and antibiotic Vibativ, licensed from Theravance Biopharma in May, that granted SciClone exclusive development and commercial rights in China and certain adjacent territories.

While the company's headquarters are in Foster City, California, China holds center stage and that makes everything that happens in healthcare there of interest.

Blobel said it's no secret that oncology is the hottest area right now driven in no small part by the government.

"There is scope for accelerate INDs and approvals, time will tell, but I would underline oncology," Blobel said, noting staggering unmet medical need.

He also said that there is now a "practical hold" on online drug sales for prescription products, despite some statements earlier this year that China FDA may move to allow such sales.

Still, there does appear to be money out there for online healthcare portals and over-the-counter offerings as seen by China's raising $394 million in venture financing in a market broadly in focus--and also by Baidu, Alibaba ($BABA) and as regulatory guidelines remain a work in progress.

"There are concerns for safety reasons, fake products high among them," Blobel said. That means sales reps will remain the focus for every company, though hiring may remain mixed as multinational firms keep sharp eyes on headcount.

And for a company that wants to grow in China, he said that biotech is in focus, even though past development efforts have come up short.

"We may have something to say about that space soon."

- here's a link to the company's website