CEOs of BioNTech, Bayer, Merck KGaA join German Chancellor Scholz in high-profile China visit

In the first visit by a G7 leader to China since the pandemic started, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has led a business delegation to the country. CEOs of biopharma titans Bayer, BioNTech and Merck KGaA are among the 12-person team of industry leaders to make the trip.

Bayer’s Werner Baumann, BioNTech’s Ugur Sahin and Merck KGaA’s Belén Garijo joined Scholz on the one-day visit Friday. No major investment deals have come out of the high-profile trip.

The only notable agreement is that China will allow foreigners in the country to receive BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine Comirnaty. The vaccine is already being sold in China’s special districts of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Scholz made the announcement during a joint press briefing with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Calling the agreement “a first step,” Scholz said he hopes the “circle of eligible persons can soon be widened” to make the BioNTech shot available to the general public, Reuters reports.

“We are committed to supply the people on the Chinese Mainland with our COVID-19 vaccine upon approval as part of our global supply strategy and long-term commitment to China, which is a strategically important market for us,” a BioNTech spokesperson said in a statement to Fierce Pharma.

BioNTech partnered with Fosun Pharma on Comirnaty in a pact signed in early 2020. Reports initially suggested that the shot would be approved in China last July at the latest. But China still hasn’t allowed a single foreign-made COVID shot for the mainland.

Last month, the Financial Times reported that Moderna’s negotiations to bring its mRNA vaccine to China had fallen through after the U.S. company refused to transfer its core intellectual property to the country. This revelation led to speculation that BioNTech might be facing a similar dilemma.

In a Friday statement, a BioNTech spokesperson declined to comment on details of potential or actual discussions Sahin would have during his visit in China. The company directed the question about COVID vaccine’s status to Chinese regulators.

As for Bayer and Merck KGaA, the two legacy German powerhouses were among the earliest life sciences companies to enter China, each with about a century of history operating in the country. Merck KGaA’s Garijo was leading the company’s biopharma division when the company made hefty investments in its Nantong pharma manufacturing facility near Shanghai in the 2010s.

Merck’s KGaA was also one of the few foreign biopharmas that significantly doubled down on Chinese operations during the pandemic. In April, the company’s life science CDMO business, MilliporeSigma, unveiled a plan to invest 100 million euros to expand its existing WuXi production site to significantly increase the biopharma's single-use assemblies and custom-design capabilities to support the production of COVID vaccines and other therapies.

The WuXi expansion runs alongside a separate commitment in which Merck KGaA plans to spend more than 1 billion Chinese yuan by 2025 on its electronic business in China.

Merck KGaA didn’t respond to a Fierce Pharma request for comment on Garijo’s China visit.

Meanwhile, Bayer is celebrating its 140th anniversary in China. The company’s pharma business recently took heavy hits from China’s volume-based procurement program and generics. The country’s price-cut scheme targeting off-patent drugs almost single-handedly dragged Bayer’s top-selling drug, blood thinner Xarelto, to a sales decline this year.

On the flip side, Bayer has introduced new therapies like Kerendia for chronic kidney disease and Verquvo for heart failure to China. The company’s partner Hua Medicine just received a first-in-class approval in China for diabetes drug dorzagliatin.

“We are convinced that the main issues of our time—from climate protection to food security—can only be solved through dialogue and collaboration with key global actors such as China,” a Bayer spokesperson said in a statement to Fierce Pharma. “We therefore welcome German government’s initiative to seek personal talks with the Chinese government, directly addressing the challenges that currently exist in the relationship with China.”

Commenting on Bayer’s participation in the annual China International Import Expo that’s slated to start Saturday in Shanghai, Baumann said Bayer has proudly been a part of China’s development and progress.