Hong Kong must do more to attract international drugs companies, experts say

While the Hong Kong government has announced funding for research, experts say incentives are still lacking for international drugs companies

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 November, 2016, 8:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 November, 2016, 8:02am

More must be done to attract international pharmaceutical companies to Hong Kong, ­according to the head of a top ­local drugs association.

Despite the government announcing in its latest policy blueprint and budget to commit over HK$18 billion to support development in innovation and technology, Sabrina Chan So-kuen, executive director of the Hong Kong Association of the Pharmaceutical Industry, said the city could still do more to incentivise big companies to set up here.

“Quality of research in Hong Kong is world-class, but more can be done in the quantity,” she said.

Chan said the capacity of the two local medical schools has been limited in supporting research of drugs, which can take more than 10 years to complete one product.

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“Only one to three types of drugs would succeed in every 10,000 projects ... it can be done only with lots of support from the government,” said Chan, adding forms of support could include tax ­rebates for biomedical firms or provision of tailor-made facilities for drugs companies.

Chan indicated that the manpower and resources available in Hong Kong were often insufficient to support the complete development of new drugs, and must involve both universities and international firms.

In recent years, international drugs companies have been encouraged to set up research bases in the region to meet the specific needs of customers here.

Studies have found Asian patients suffer from illnesses that often differ from those in the western world. For example, lung cancer, the most common cancer among men worldwide, is more likely related to a specific gene mutation in East Asian men. These region-specific needs offer firms large financial incentives.

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Chan said Shanghai was a contrast to Hong Kong, attracting talent from all over the country.

The government there established the Zhangjiang Innopark early in 1992 as a zone for technological development and designated biomedicine as one of the park’s focuses.

Opening its latest US$1 billion Shanghai research facility, which focuses on cancer and regenerative medicine, Swiss drugmaker Novartis was among other international pharmaceutical giants including GSK and Roche to establish their research bases in the park in recent years.

“There is a talent base here ... the Shanghai government is very interested in working with companies to establish research infrastructure,” Novartis’ senior vice-president, John Ketchum, said.

Felisa Feng from the China Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research said the government had simplified import and export procedures for experimental ingredients so pharmaceutical firms to speed up development.

Professor Stephen Chan Lam, associate professor in clinical ­oncology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said setting up a research base in the city could ­allow faster approval of new drugs by local health authorities, as local patients could have easier access to clinical trials.

The Innovation and Technology Bureau said it would continue to attract firms in biomedicine to set up research offices in Hong Kong. Financial support has been provided to biotechnology research centres.

As of the end of August, close to HK$800 million has been awarded to more than 390 projects.