GlaxoSmithKline partners with Alibaba for China HPV vaccine market grab

GlaxoSmithKline’s Cervarix is losing to Merck’s Gardasil in the U.S. and Europe, but it hopes to win some scores from China. To do that, it has formed an alliance with China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba.

The new collaboration, built on Alibaba’s Ali Health platform available on the Taobao mobile app, enables users to access online HPV and cervical cancer education information or consultation services from either professional healthcare providers or smart bots.

It also allows users to make Cervarix vaccination appointment at community healthcare centers. The platform is expected to cover 1,500 such centers in more than 100 largely populated cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou by year-end, GSK said in a release.

Up to now, the bivalent vaccine hasn’t been doing very well. Its sales declined 26% to £118 million ($151 million) in 2014, and 2016 sales were only £81 million, not to mention its withdrawal from the U.S. market last October due to “very low market demand.” China could be a savior for Cervarix, which was just launched after being approved in July 2016 as the first HPV vaccine in the Chinese mainland. 

RELATED: Merck's Gardasil preps for head-to-head with GlaxoSmithKline’s Cervarix in China, with big sales targets ahead

Cervarix was first to market, but its archrival, Merck’s Gardasil, is only a few months behind, having nabbed an approval from China’s FDA in May. Sales of Gardasil and Gardasil 9 have been steadily increasing, from $1.74 billion in 2014 to $2.17 billion in 2016.

For China, under an exclusive distribution deal with seasoned local vaccine company ZhiFei Biological Products, Merck expects to sell $166 million worth of Gardasil for the first year after its official launch, followed by $216 million and $268 million in the second and third years.

Cervarix protects against two types of HPV infection, while Gardasil blocks four types, though the additional two types lead to genital warts, not cervical cancer, for which both vaccines are currently approved by the CFDA.

But there is some upside for GSK. According to the bidding price GSK has reached with several provincial authorities, Cervarix costs 580 Chinese yuan per shot, meaning the three-jab regimen amounts to 1,740 Chinese yuan ($260). Patients will be paying slightly more than that after additional fees. Gardasil, though not yet launched in the country, has reached the price of 798 Chinese yuan per shot, or about 38% higher than that of Cervarix, with some local governments.

In China, Cervarix is currently approved for vaccination in a younger population—women ages 9 to 25—while Gardasil is for women 20 to 45, and GSK is also seeking an expansion to include a larger age group, according to a GSK China spokesperson. Most health authorities, including the CDC and the World Health Organization, recommend early HPV immunization for adolescents and young adults.

Now, with the backing of Alibaba, an e-commerce platform with a huge presence in China, GSK hopes to win big. Cervical cancer prevention and vaccination is only the first step of the partnership between the two companies. GSK China said in a statement that they will continue to collaborate in pediatric and broader adult vaccination services in the near future.