Big Pharma CEOs gather in Beijing to ⁠show continued interest in China, offer policy advice

The CEOs of AstraZeneca, Bayer, Bristol Myers Squibb, GSK, Novartis, Pfizer and Takeda came together in Beijing to show the companies’ continued interest in China and to offer their advice for the country’s healthcare industry.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, while complimenting China’s large market opportunity, urged the Chinese government to further improve its protection of intellectual property, according to a Pfizer social media post (Chinese).

Bourla made the comment Sunday during a one-on-one dialogue with Li Daokui, an economist at Tsinghua University who is known as a key adviser to China’s core leadership, at the annual China Development Forum (CDF). Back in 2019, Li had stated that Beijing could block exports of medicines as a countermeasure to the U.S.’s trade war.

The 2024 CDF conference marked perhaps the largest gathering of multinational pharma CEOs in China since the pandemic. The CEOs’ attendance comes as several U.S. lawmakers, through the draft BIOSECURE Act, aim to ban certain Chinese firms labeled as “foreign adversary biotech companies of U.S. national security concern” from getting federal contracts.

Pfizer remains committed to improving the health of the Chinese people, the company said in the release. The New York pharma previously devised a goal to include China in its initial round of drug filings by including the country in all its pivotal phase 3 trials by 2027.

“I’m encouraged by opportunities to continue to expand the biopharmaceutical industry in China,” Bourla said Wednesday in a separate meeting organized by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce to attract foreign investment, as quoted by Bloomberg. “I’m particularly inspired by the prospect of holistic, innovative drug development here.”

Besides Bourla, AZ’s CEO Pascal Soriot, Bristol Myers’ CEO Chris Boerner, Novartis’ CEO Vas Narasimhan, Takeda’s CEO Christophe Weber and Organon’s CEO Kevin Ali joined the helmsmen of Sinopharm and Amway on a CDF panel on health.

Intellectual property and data protection were also on Narasimhan’s mind. He suggested that China refine its early resolution mechanisms for patent disputes, which have been on a trial run since 2021, to include more patent types, Caixin reports. He also urged local authorities to accelerate the implementation of patent compensation for new drugs, which would make up for a product’s regulatory review period, and of pediatric and orphan drug market exclusivity.

Narasimhan, while commending China’s progress in simplifying regulatory processes, argued that review of drugs based on novel technologies should be better aligned with standard international practices. The Novartis CEO highlighted the company’s leadership in radioligand therapies.

During his speech, Boerner called for a better payment mechanism in China, including a tiered healthcare coverage system and the seamless adoption of drugs at hospitals following reimbursement policies, according to a BMS social media post (Chinese). He proposed more incentives to reward first- or best-in-class drugs, plus more alignment in drug prices between China and other major markets, Caixin reports.

Some foreign-made drugs, including BMS’s PD-1 inhibitor Opdivo, have not reached national reimbursement deals in China due to pricing disagreements.

Thanks to its high price, relma-cel, a CD19 CAR-T therapy made by former BMS-WuXi Apptec joint venture, JW Therapeutics, is also not covered by national insurance in China. The one-time blood cancer treatment generated 170 million Chinese yuan ($24 million) in 2023 sales.

Only with a complete value chain supporting innovation will Chinese patients enjoy the most of China’s booming innovative drug industry, Boerner said, according to Caixin.

Former China FDA chief Bi Jingquan made similar points during a standalone speech at CDF about optimizing China’s innovative drug environment. Bi was credited for spearheading China’s push to boost innovative drugs before resigning from his drug regulator job in 2018 following a local firm’s vaccine data fabrication scandal.

Continued investments in biopharma are made possible by the notion that innovative drug prices are the result of global competition, Bi said, according to state-run Xinhua news agency (Chinese).

Meanwhile, China’s current national drug insurance system is based on a generics market. It’s built to ensure universal coverage of essential medicines and therefore doesn’t have much additional capacity to manage an influx of innovative drugs, Bi noted. Therefore, China must promote commercial medical insurance and support payments for innovative drugs with a tiered system, he added.

Bi’s speech during a state-sponsored event could be viewed as an indication of what’s in the works among China’s policymakers. A few days ago, rumors surfaced that authorities were devising a comprehensive plan to support the development of new innovative drugs in China. A widely reported but yet unverified government draft document mentioned several measures, including more support for investment in and better insurance coverage for innovative drugs.

Also at CDF, GSK’s CEO Emma Walmsley joined Abbot Laboratories’ Robert Ford and Medtronic’s Geoff Martha, plus a few other CEOs, on a second panel on health. Bayer CEO Bill Anderson was on another Sunday panel about environmental policy.

Editor's Note: The story has been updated to reflect that JW Therapeutics was formerly a joint venture between Bristol Myers Squibb's Juno Therapeutics and WuXi AppTec.