Sanofi-Aventis says it is in talks with a partner to enter the Japanese generics drug market but has not confirmed reports that the firm in question is Nichi-iko Pharmaceutical Co.

Speaking in Tokyo, chief executive Chris Viehbacher, quoted by Reuters, said “we are interested in the Japanese generic market and we are in a discussions with a partner but we can't officially confirm anything because we are not quite ready for that”. He did say that the company’s target is to become the fifth largest drugmaker in Japan in five years’ time, up from tenth now.

However, the Nikkei business daily claims that Sanofi will invest some 5 billion yen ($56 million) for a stake of almost 5% in Nichi-iko, making it the second-largest shareholder after the company's founding family. The newspaper also reports that the two firms will form a joint venture to share technology to develop new generics and import Sanofi products. It claims that the French drugmaker will hold a 51% stake in the JV.

The Japanese generics market is becoming increasingly more interesting for big pharma as the government there, desperate to reduce healthcare costs, has set a target of copycat versions making up 30% of the market by sales volume in the year to March 2013, up from 20% now.

Interest in animal health assets
Mr Viehbacher also said there is “significant interest” in the parts of Sanofi’s animal-health business that need to be sold to satisfy antitrust authorities.

In March, Sanofi announced plans to combine its Merial unit with Merck & Co's Intervet/Schering Plough business which will create a global leader in animal health. However certain assets need to be sold off and Bayer, Pfizer and Boehringer Ingelheim are thought to be among the bidders.