Johnson & Johnson enlists diabetes veteran Merck KGaA to hawk Invokana in China

Merck kgaa
Merck KGaA has been co-promoting Glucophage in China since 2013. (Merck KGaA)

With Johnson & Johnson's diabetes drug Invokana going up against two longtime rivals in China, the company is ramping things up.

The drugmaker brought on Merck KGaA to market Invokana in China, leveraging its longtime work in the country’s diabetes field. The German pharma and J&J’s Xian Janssen subsidiary will “work closely together” on development, distribution and more, J&J said Thursday, and they’ll share Chinese sales of the drug. But Merck will be the only company promoting the drug there.

Xian Janssen doesn’t currently market any diabetes therapies, while Merck, on the other hand, has been a part of China’s diabetes treatment landscape for years. In April 2013, the company teamed up with Bristol-Myers Squibb to co-promote Glucophage there, aiming to launch a number of different Glucophage formulations into new areas of the country.

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Since then, Merck has made some big investments: In July 2014, the company pegged Shanghai as the site for its second-largest plant in the world, where it would make Glucophage, along with a couple of other products, for the Chinese market.

RELATED: German Merck to start work on new China plant

“Merck has been making continued efforts to expand its portfolio with the aim of providing more high-quality medicines and better treatment options for millions of diabetic patients in China,” Rogier Janssen, managing director of Merck’s biopharma business in China, said in a statement. “The introduction of Invokana to China reinforces our long-term commitment.”

The Darmstadt-based drugmaker won’t be without in-class competition, though. Last March, AstraZeneca became the first SGLT2 drugmaker to win Chinese approval, netting a go-ahead for Farxiga (dubbed Forxiga overseas). And Eli Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim’s Jardiance boasts a green light, too.

Still, with more than 114 million patients in China living with diabetes—a number that’s the highest for any country in the world and rising, Merck says—the drugmakers should be able to find room in the market.

RELATED: Johnson & Johnson's Invokana matches Jardiance's 14% reduction in major CV events—but doubles amputation risk, too

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Jardiance is holding a clinical edge: It's approved to decrease the risk of cardiovascular death thanks to outcomes data that was unprecedented at the time it rolled out. Since then, J&J has generated heart-helping data of its own, but it’s still waiting for FDA clearance to add the results to its label.