Novartis CEO eyes biosimilar plays in Asia that fit with Sandoz plans

Biosimilar firms in Asia are in focus for Novartis ($NVS) CEO Joe Jimenez as he seeks to find a complement to programs by the company's generic arm Sandoz in that space.

Jimenez made the comments to Bloomberg at the opening of a $1 billion research campus in Shanghai that joins units in Basel, Switzerland and Cambridge, MA, as research pillars for the company.

Jimenez told the financial news agency that M&A prospects worldwide in the range of $1 billion to $5 billion could fit into its pharmaceuticals, oncology, eye care and generic business units--noting in particular that some companies may need to sell units because of antitrust concerns.

“If there were biosimilars, we could potentially acquire those to complement the pipeline in Sandoz,” Jimenez told Bloomberg, adding that while companies in China may not be a target for now, there “definitely are in other parts of Asia.”

He also said that the company would consider even bigger deals if the rationale was “immediately evident to our shareholders.”

In Asia, key firms in the biosimilar space include Samsung Bioepis, a joint venture between majority owner Samsung BioLogics and Biogen ($BIIB).

As well, South Korea's Celltrion has in the past has seen reports surface that CEO and founder Seo Jung-jin wants to sell his near 30% stake. Investors in the firm include Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek.

Celltrion also has a marketing tie-up with Hospira, now owned by Pfizer ($PFE), which last year returned a Celltrion-partnered Remicade (infliximab)‎ biosimilar on sale in Europe and an early-stage effort on Amgen's ($AMGN) Neupogen (filgrastim) as part of an agreement with European antitrust regulators.

Also of note, Bangalore-based drugmaker Biocon has stepped up in the biosimilar race in the European Union as well as the United States, citing its ability to get a nod earlier this year in Japan for a biosimilar of Sanofi's ($SNY) blockbuster Lantus (insulin glargine).

For the China research center, Jimenez said he expects results--and fast.

“We expect Shanghai to ramp up relatively quickly” in terms of drug discovery, he told Bloomberg, adding the focus is on diseases in the oncology area prevalent in the country--lung, liver and gastric cancer.

- here's the Bloomberg story
- and an FT take