Vas Narasimhan has high hopes for Novartis’ China drive as a blockbuster drug gets a nod

Novartis has clinched a China approval for its blockbuster psoriasis drug Cosentyx — the first of more than 10 novel medicines that it plans to introduce in the country within the next few years.

The approval arrives just six months after filing and amid Novartis’ other high-profile overtures to establish itself as a key foreign pharma player in China, from teaming up with local biotechs and enlisting domestic tech giant Tencent for disease management programs to opening a new biomedical research center in Beijing.

Speaking at the China Development Forum — a well attended confab featuring fellow pharma bosses like Albert Bourla and Olivier Brandicourt — a few days ago, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan said thanks to ongoing regulatory reforms and scientific advances, he expects China to become one of the top three markets for Novartis by sales in the coming years.

“If I was asked a few years ago how the Chinese market is different from the international market, I might have talked about many differences,” he told a local reporter. “But these differences are dwindling. China’s drug industry and market are increasingly similar to those in developed countries.”

Case in point: Novartis got NMPA stamps on nine new drugs in the past two years alone, with a regulatory timeline “at the same level of what we see in the United States or in Europe,” he added in an interview with China Daily.

Among the next slate of products it plans to roll out, Narasimhan highlighted the potential of cell and gene therapies, including Novartis’ pioneering CAR-T treatment for cancer, Kymriah.

The high price tags of these cutting edge treatments, though, are bound to trigger new debates on pricing — and Novartis will be going up against some entrenched local players in carving out pieces of the multi-billion dollar pie.

Take Shanghai Junshi for example. The newly public biotech (on HKEX), which scored approval for China’s first homegrown PD-1 inhibitor, recently came out with its own sales forecast for its drug Tuo Yi: They expect sales to peak in three to four years and bring in annual revenue of $1.5 billion to $2.2 billion (RMB 10 billion – 15 billion). The profit margin, CEO Li Ning said, should be no less than 90%, according to a report by S&P Global.

Focusing on drugs that fill specific gaps, and appealing to Chinese patients, then, could be key. And that’s something Novartis has alluded to in their announcement of Cosentyx’s approval, which was based partly on data from trials conducted in China.

“The average onset age of psoriasis in China is around 30, and many of the moderate-to-severe patients are in their prime. This population plays an irreplaceable role in their family, workplace and society. Thus, treatment with high efficacy, a good safety profile and long-lasting disease control is what we are looking for to help patients get back to normal life and work,” Jianzhong Zhang, former president of Chinese Society of Dermatology, Chinese Medical Association, was quoted in the release. “Positive China data presented recently makes us hopeful for the clinical use of secukinumab in China. I hope to see Chinese patients benefit from this innovative treatment and be relieved from their illness burden.”

Image: Vas Narasimhan at CDF. NOVARTIS

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
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Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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