AstraZeneca allies with Alibaba and Tencent as its China sales soar

The 5% decrease in full-year 2017 sales might have disappointed AstraZeneca investors, but China remained a propeller of growth. The British pharma is now stepping up its game there through two new deals with Chinese internet giants Alibaba and Tencent.

The strategic partnership with Alibaba’s Ali Health will leverage the latter’s expertise in the internet and artificial intelligence to focus on the so-called smart health services, which include patient education, chronic disease prevention and management, as well as future AI-assisted clinical screening and diagnosis.

Its tie-up with Tencent involves harnessing the power of big data to fight online sales of counterfeit drugs. AstraZeneca will contribute its medical knowhow, while Tencent will use its social scenario-learning system to identify illegal drug sales.

AstraZeneca inked those two deals while CEO Pascal Soriot joined a business delegation accompanying U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on her visit to China. They also came about two months after the company turned its R&D center in China into a joint venture with a state-backed private equity fund.

“We made encouraging progress across the main therapy areas and delivered strong growth in China,” said Soriot in the company’s full-year 2017 announcement, which stated that drug sales in the country grew 30% at constant exchange rate for the fourth quarter, and 15% for the entire year to a total of nearly $3 billion. That was on the backdrop of 16% and 7% decreases in the U.S. and Europe, respectively.

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Some major revenue drivers in the country includes Iressa, whose China sales increased by 28% to $144 million, largely boosted by expanded patient access through the inclusion on the country’s drug list covered by national insurance. Respiratory assets Symbicort and Pulmicort both delivered double-digit growth in the country.

Other than those, its cancer med Tagrisso was launched in China in April 2017, and PARP inhibitor Lynparza while FibroGen-partnered first-in-class medicine roxadustat for anemia are currently under priority review by the China FDA. AZ expects China will become the first approval country for roxadustat in the second half of 2018, contradicting common perception that the country lags in novel drug approvals.

The year 2018 marks the 25-year anniversary of AstraZeneca’s China business. “As our second largest market, with supportive healthcare policies and increasing demand for innovative medicines, we see China playing a growing role in our global plans,” said Soriot in a statement shared with FiercePharma.