AstraZeneca, Merck, GSK Struck Record $44.1B Licensing Deals With Chinese Drugmakers In 2023: Report

Western pharmaceutical companies and investors are driving a record number of licensing deals with Chinese drugmakers struggling to fund late-stage drug development and global expansion.

What Happened: According to UBS Research, companies like Merck MRK, GSK GSK, and AstraZeneca AZN signed a record $44.1 billion in biotech licensing deals last year, the Financial Times reported on Sunday. The trend continues in 2024, with $9.8 billion worth of deals in the first quarter.

Western pharma companies are expanding their product pipelines as they face patent expirations of lucrative drugs. Meanwhile, Chinese drugmakers are struggling to raise funds domestically due to a stock market slump and a pricing regime overhaul that forces them to drop prices of innovative drugs.

Helen Chen, head of LEK Consulting's healthcare practice in Shanghai, noted that Chinese companies face funding constraints just as their biotech investments are starting to show results. Beijing's campaign to drive down drug prices has pushed these companies to seek growth overseas.

Despite rising geopolitical tensions and slowing economic growth, Western interest in Chinese pharma remains strong. Chen Chen, a healthcare analyst at UBS, highlighted that many global pharmaceutical companies are looking to expand their portfolios as numerous drug patents are set to expire soon.

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Most deals involve U.S. or European companies licensing Chinese-made drugs at low prices, providing capital for further development, clinical trials, and commercialization. Some deals also include rights to sell within China.

In December, Merck made a $70 million upfront payment for the Chinese rights to license Shanghai-based biotech group Abbisko's treatment for benign joint tumors. The license includes an option for overseas commercialization.

This month, Shanghai-listed Jiangsu Hengrui Pharmaceuticals sold the overseas license for a portfolio of weight loss drugs to Hercules CM NewCo for $110 million, with additional payments upon regulatory milestones and royalties if commercialized. Hengrui also received a 20% stake in Hercules.

Why It Matters: The surge in licensing deals between Western and Chinese pharmaceutical companies comes amid increasing scrutiny and geopolitical tensions. In March, Congressional scrutiny intensified on Chinese biotech firms, with companies like WuXi AppTec facing significant challenges. This scrutiny is partly due to concerns over intellectual property and national security.

Later in the same month, U.S. intelligence accused a Chinese pharma giant of illegally sharing secrets with Beijing, further complicating the landscape for Chinese biotech firms. These developments highlight the complex environment in which these licensing deals are occurring, with both opportunities and risks for the involved parties.

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Image by Robert Way via Shutterstock

This story was generated using Benzinga Neuro and edited by Pooja Rajkumari

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