Two leading regional pharma executives, from Eli Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim respectively have recently moved to head up China operations; perhaps a sign that despite recent geopolitical tensions, multinational biopharma is again/still betting on the country. With innovation-friendly healthcare reforms in place, as well as measures to encourage foreign investment, China will hope that these companies will follow the lead of AstraZeneca and continue to invest big in the country once more.


From Italy to China

Global pharma companies have started off the new year with leadership reshuffles and two veteran country managers – from Eli Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim – who have already held leadership positions across multiple geographies get ready to direct their companies’ China affiliates.

After a 26-year-long career at Eli Lilly she began in her native Turkey, Huzur Devletsah is leaving her position as president and GM Italy, Central Eastern Europe, Russia/CIS, and Israel to become president and GM of Lilly China. No stranger to challenges, Devletsah’s previous region groups a total of 28 countries with over USD 1 billion in revenue. Speaking about that role and taking on a new region, Devletsah cited one of Eli Lilly’s founders in an interview with PharmaBoardroom: “Take what you find here and make it better and better.” She also mentioned the importance of adapting to each geography, “executing the best strategy possible for each country,” something she will again have to do in China.

While Lilly’s presence in China is not new, in recent years the company has expanded its investment in R&D, built extensive partnerships with local players, and is looking to bring its blockbuster obesity and diabetes therapies to the country.


Leaving META for China

After over two decades with Boehringer Ingelheim and a career that has led him to different geographies, Mohammed Al-Tawil, is also heading for China, leaving his role as regional managing director and head of Human Pharma META to become chairman and CEO for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Not only has Al-Tawil been responsible for a number of countries in the META region and the UAE, he also gained familiarity with the Chinese market during his time at the corporate headquarters in Germany where he supported Boehringer Ingelheim’s growth in China and Latin America and his experience in diverse regions has given him a unique perspective. “Being exposed to a multitude of practices and cultures has allowed me to see the advantages that a truly multicultural corporate environment brings to the workforce,” he said in a PharmaBoardroom interview. Discussing his former role, Al-Tawil also highlighted the importance of adapting to each geography’s particularities: “a one-size-fits-all approach would be ineffective to say the least.”

Boehringer Ingelheim too has big plans for China. Set to invest some USD 97.85 million to expand its existing production bases there, the German company is also looking to reap the benefits of its generalized pustular psoriasis (GPP) treatment Spevigo, approved last year by China’s National Medical Products Administration.


Reforms to Attract Foreign Investment

There is perhaps a sense among international biopharma companies that China is a country where opportunities still abound. AstraZeneca for one, as the biggest foreign pharma in the country with revenues there making up 13 percent of its global sales, is firmly rooted in the country.

Recent healthcare and investment reforms may have spawned some of this renewed interest.  Drug reimbursement in China, for example, has become increasingly more centralised while the creation of the National Healthcare Security Administration and the implementation of the National Reimbursement Drug List (NRDL), have led to more consistent assessments. Moreover, the number of products in the NRDL has expanded to include more new, patented drugs.

Another boost for foreign companies after stringent COVID-19 measures and geopolitical tensions may have given some cold feet, was the plan created last year by China’s State Council. Aimed at attracting foreign investment and improving the overall business environment, the plan includes a number of tax and visa incentives. And, the biopharma industry was particularly highlighted in the scheme with the intention to encourage foreign-invested companies to carry out new clinical trials in China and the creation of fast-track procedures.

Multinational pharma companies are also tapping into China’s research potential with M&A activity such as AstraZeneca’s recent purchase of China-based cell therapy biotech, Gracell Biotechnology. However, stiff competition has also led big pharmas with a local presence such as GSK and Sanofi to look more and more to local partners to commercialise their products, especially the mature ones, in China, a move that may lead to job cuts.

In addition, the Chinese government has launched a renewed anti-corruption campaign targeted at healthcare and the pharmaceuticals industry to eliminate the bribery and profiteering of which  GlaxoSmithKline China was found guilty a decade ago.