AstraZeneca has been adopting a whole new business model in China in order to reap the benefits from the vast opportunities available in the world’s largest country.

Speaking last week at the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker’s emerging markets presentation in London, marketing company president Yin Xudong noted that the pharmaceutical sector in China could be worth around $80 billion by 2014, up from around $10 billion in 2004. That growth is being driven by an increase in the middle classes who can pay for drugs out of their own pocket and more significantly, the Chinese government’s plans to expand healthcare coverage.

Beijing is committed to investing $125 billion to support these reforms between 2009-2011, which includes $64 billion on basic healthcare insurance and $38 billion to build and upgrade community/rural hospitals. This will help stimulate a new broad market, said Mr Xudong.

He said that AstraZeneca was the biggest pharmaceutical company in China in terms of market share before the Pfizer/Wyeth merger. The firm has a strong presence across the country concentrating on 200 cities (to rise to 300) and has a workforce of around 3,500, who are subject to “rigourous semi-annual talent reviews”.

Of that, some 2,000 new members of the field force have been recruited since 2003 but Mr Xudong told PharmaTimes World News that “merely throwing sales reps” into the mix is an expensive, inefficient strategy. He said that AstraZeneca has spent the last two years looking at its business model for China and “exploring a multitude of channels” to keep growing.

He noted that the company profiled 250,000 doctors out of 1.3 million in China, thus building up a valuable database to target relevant physicians, thus making the sales force more productive, Last year, AstraZeneca was boosted by getting four products onto China’s National Reimbursement Drug List, and for one of them, the asthma combo Symbicort (budesonide/formoterol), Mr Xudong said that "China-specific insights” were adopted. For example, “differentiated messaging” between pulmonologists and paediatricians (efficacy versus fast-control) was used, a different approach to the one employed in established markets.

As well as continued growth for established products such as the blockbusters Crestor (rosuvastatin) and Nexium (esomeprazole), AstraZeneca has high hopes for newer drugs. Mr Xudong highlighted the possibilities for the oral antiplatelet therapy Brilinta (ticagrelor) in a country where some 100 million people are estimated to have heart disease and the diabetes compounds Onglyza (saxagliptin) and dapagliflozin should do well; China is home to 40 million diabetic and 20 million pre-diabetic patients.

Mr Xudong also told that AstraZeneca is actively looking at collaborations in China, concluding that the group’s above-market growth over the last few years is set to continue.