AstraZeneca confident on COPD in China as nebulizer centers grow

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot

Sales of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) treatment Pulmicort (budesonide) in China continued to perform well for AstraZeneca ($AZN) as nebulizer centers expand.

That was the message from Luke Miels, executive vice president for Global Products and Portfolio Strategy, Global Medical Affairs, and Corporate Affairs, on the July 28 earnings call.

Miels noted that while the company's overall respiratory franchise gained 1% in the first half of the year, the figure shadowed emerging market performance.

"In the half year, Symbicort established itself as the number one medicine globally in the growing ICS/LABA class in volume terms," Miels told analysts, noting a weak point in the U.S. on pricing.

But outside of developed markets, the engine was humming, he said.

"In emerging markets, we maintained leadership where sales grew by 25%, with China growing by 33%. Pulmicort sales grew by 10% in total, largely driven by a 23% increase in emerging markets, and the business in China continues to expand with more nebulizer centers established in addition to the 8,000 or so centers already in place."

That effort to expand access through the centers will continue, Miels said.

"We believe this sales growth is sustainable with additional initiatives in the high nebulization, improved diagnostics, as well as treatment," he said, adding that another product--Duaklir (aclidinium - formoterol)--also won gains as part of the emerging LAMA/LABA class set of therapies expected to show sales of $1 billion in 2016.

Still, Miels and other executives on the call said competition remains fierce with firms such as Boehringer Ingelheim and Novartis ($NVS) in the space. They also noted that attention is being paid to GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) in particular for a potential triple combo treatment by the end of next year--though any arrival in China may be years away.

High levels of air pollution in China's major cities make it a key market for COPD treatments, though Miels again noted for AstraZeneca it is one product in a lineup that jibes with medical needs in the country.

He said that China showed 11% growth so far this year, continuing double-digit sales gains in the country while many other major multinationals lag, though even AstraZeneca noted a slower pace of gains than last year.

"While growth in China moderated during the half, we are looking at growing faster than other multinational companies and the overall market, and looking forward we expect to maintain solid growth in China. For Brazil and Russia, Brazil and Russia grew at 13% and 12%, and these two countries along with the Middle East and Africa and most of Latin America all continued to outperform the market," Miels said.

"And encouragingly this growth was supported across all the main therapeutic areas. So respiratory sales were up 23%, Brilinta (ticagrelor)‎ was up 106%, diabetes was up 44%, and finally legacy oncology was up 5%. As a reminder, the long-term target for emerging markets is mid to high single-digit percentage growth in sales."

AstraZeneca has bet big on China, with plans afoot to develop, manufacture and sell biologic drugs with partners.

Looking ahead in that regard, Sean Bohen, executive vice president for Global Medicines Development and chief medical officer, said the company expects to make the first regulatory submission, "a rolling submission," for Roxadustat (FG-4592) in China via partner FibroGen.

And in the oncology space, the company's first-in-class therapy Tagrisso (osimertinib)‎, which was approved in Japan earlier this year.

- here's the release

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