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AstraZeneca’s China ambitions grow with new R&D investments

AstraZeneca is expanding its industry-leading presence in China, announcing Wednesday it will open a global R&D center in Shanghai and double the number of research positions to 1,000 in a bid to develop new drugs for diseases particularly prevalent in the country. Another research center in Shanghai will work to apply artificial intelligence to streamlining drug research, manufacturing and marketing in hopes of speeding drugs to market. That center will partner with local tech companies and startups. Capping AstraZeneca’s renewed China push will be an investment fund created with a Chinese investment bank. The two backers are hoping to raise $1 billion for the fund, which will support companies seeking to improve Chinese healthcare.

China is already a linchpin to AstraZeneca’s global strategy. The Cambridge, U.K.-based big pharma recorded more sales there in the third quarter of 2019 than it did in all of Europe, earning $1.3 billion. That total took AstraZenecas’s emerging market sales to $2.1 billion, exceeding even U.S. sales of $2 billion.

The new initiatives in China are a sign that AstraZeneca sees China as a source of innovation as well as sales. Among a slate of  announcements today that coincided with a major business meeting, AstraZeneca said it had licensed three oncology projects to China-based companies: AZD3229 to Ningbo Tai King Medical Technology, AZD0364 to Antengene, and AZD4547 to Abbisko.

The new research center will look to do more collaboration “within China’s emerging R&D ecosystem,” AstraZeneca said in a statement. That emerging R&D ecosystem was boosted by the new ability of pre-revenue companies to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange, giving them access to a broader investor base.

China’s biotech sector could see some more stimulation from AstraZeneca’s new fund, which will be formed with the investment bank CICC. The fund will focus “as a first step” on domestic companies and partners, but also may be open to “international companies looking to establish a presence in China.”

A “China-first” strategy may be more attractive to biopharma companies thanks to landmark events like the first approvals of Hutchison China MediTech’s Elunate (fruquintinib) and AstraZeneca and FibroGen’s roxadustat ahead of reaching U.S. or European markets.

An aging population with a changing disease burden makes China an increasingly important market for companies with global objectives.

Last week, Amgen paid $2.7 billion for a stake in Chinese drug company BeiGene, which in return will sell three drugs from its marketed cancer portfolio and have rights to many development stage projects.

Meanwhile, Astra also announced an agreement with Sun Pharma, India’s biggest pharmaceutical company, to market novel ready-to-use infusion oncology products in China.