Bracco lays foundation for growth in China

August 18, 2004

Bracco sees extraordinary growth potential in China's contrast media market and is readying itself to take advantage. The Italian company launched its second-generation ultrasound agent Sonovue and its MRI contrast agent Multihance into the Chinese

Bracco sees extraordinary growth potential in China's contrast media market and is readying itself to take advantage. The Italian company launched its second-generation ultrasound agent Sonovue and its MRI contrast agent Multihance into the Chinese market this year. The company has also invested in Chinese facilities to produce and ship contrast media. The investments are being made through a joint venture with Shanghai-based Sine Pharmaceutical.

The decision to establish a direct presence in China was based on two considerations, according to Marco Rabuffi, chair of Bracco-Sine and Bracco Group vice president. One is the expected growth in diagnostic imaging procedures and the consequent boost in the use of in vivo injectable contrast media. The other is recent improvement in China's healthcare system.

"There is now a large number of hospitals equipped with advanced systems and staffed by highly trained medical workers, many of whom were educated abroad," Rabuffi said.

Bracco is already well established in this market, thanks to some 15 years of marketing efforts. The company's products are in use at more than 4000 Chinese hospitals, according to the company, which employs a team of R&D specialists for clinical research, registration, and promotion of these drugs. Staff operate from offices in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai.

Bracco has also distributed imaging equipment in China since 1997 through the Genoa-based Esaote. China now ranks as the subsidiary's second-largest market after the U.S. for ultrasound and MR scanners.

"The Bracco-Sine joint venture and the opening of a new production facility are two fundamental moves in a medium- to long-term program, which involves a series of initiatives for the development and launch of new Bracco products into the Chinese market and enhancements to the group's commercial and industrial activities. These scould have consequences for neighboring geographical areas," Rabuffi said.

The Bracco-Sine production plant opened June 2004 in Shanghai's high-tech district. It will focus on the final cycle in contrast media production. Chinese workers will formulate drug solutions from basic ingredients sent from Italy, then prepare, seal, and sterilize individual doses. The injectable products will be shipped from Shanghai to customers elsewhere in China as well as Hong Kong and Macao.

"The operations of the joint venture are located along the coast, an area with 250 million inhabitants who serve as the heart of the Chinese economy," Rabuffi said. "It is no coincidence that people describe China not only as an emerging nation, but as a great opportunity as regards market prospects and business potential, which no European economy can match. In 2003 alone, the country reported 8.5% growth, one of the world's highest rates."

Bracco's portfolio of drugs available to Chinese doctors now includes Sonovue and Multihance (gadobenate dimeglumine, or Gd-BOPTA). Both can be used to enhance imaging of liver pathologies, which are more prevalent in China than in developed nations. Sonovue and Multihance are both available in Europe but are not marketed in the U.S.

Realizing sales potential, however, is never guaranteed. Only a small percentage of the Chinese population has private medical insurance, and so patients must pay themselves for diagnostic tests using contrast media, Rabuffi said.

China's demand for x-ray, MRI, and ultrasound contrast per capita lags behind that of industrialized countries, but that could soon change. Government investment in new medical equipment and upgrades to existing installations are expected to help stimulate the contrast market. Use of ultrasound is already widespread, and the number of ultrasound specialists in China is rising, Rabuffi said. High-field MRI is now also attracting growing interest.

Bracco regards training for local hospital staff as one of its key priorities in China. The company also aims to strengthen academic ties between Italy and China in the fields of radiology and ultrasound. Proposed initiatives include a scholarship program for the most promising members of China's State Drug Administration to take a masters degree in healthcare systems management at Milan's Bocconi University.