Sanofi-Aventis believes Japan, the second-biggest pharmaceutical market in the world, is still a major area for growth but finding suitable partners is proving difficult.

Speaking at the French drugmaker's annual results meeting in Paris last week, Hanspeter Spek, president of global operations, told PharmaTimes World News that while the Japanese market is "not the most dynamic, it is very sustainable". In 2010, sales in the country were up 9.1% to 2.23 billion euros, with about a quarter of that coming from the bloodthinner blockbuster Plavix (clopidogrel).

Given their later launch in Japan, there is still room for growth for older products like Plavix, the antihistamine Allegra (fexofenadine) and the hypnotic Myslee (zolpidem), Mr Spek said. He added that Sanofi would indeed like to expand there but added that "it takes two to tango".

He feels that pharmaceutical companies in Japan are "less open to opportuities" for partnering and believes that the more likely focus will be consolidation among Japanese drugmakers.

Somewhat more enthusiastic about Japan is AstraZeneca. At the end of last month, chief executive David Brennan told PharmaTimes World News that he sees the country as a market that will grow in importance for the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker.

In 2010, revenues from Japan claim close to $2.62 billion, up 11%. driven by strong sales of the cholesterol blockbuster Crestor (rosuvastatin) and the successful launch of the asthma combo Symbicort (budesonide and formoterol). Mr Brennan noted that one of the major advantages of the Japanese market is that while the government is aggressively promoting generics, the level of price erosion on branded products is much lower (20%-30%) than in Europe and the USA, where the effect on price can be in the region of 70%-80% and upwards.

AstraZeneca recently signed an agreement with Daiichi Sankyo for the co-promotion and supply of its $5 billion-a-year proton pump inhibitor Nexium (esomeprazole), which was filed in Japan a year ago and could be approved in the near future.