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AstraZeneca plots China robot offensive to counter price cuts

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With smart cancer diagnostics and AI systems to improve ambulance pick-ups for patients with chest pain, AstraZeneca aims to move from simply supplying drugs to becoming a broad healthcare provider in China

Tech tie-ups with the likes of Alibaba and Tencent will not directly lift the British group’s drug sales, since they are not specific for any one company’s products and in many cases will be low-cost or free.

But it will expand the overall market and represents a soft power play that dovetails neatly with Beijing’s support for internet-based healthcare systems to alleviate a lack of doctors, overcrowding and poor grassroots healthcare.

“Down the line we benefit, our products benefit, because we have better relationships with doctors and hospital managers and also because we diagnose more patients and they get better treated,” said Chief Executive Pascal Soriot.

Surrounded by the latest gizmos at the World Internet of Things Exposition in Wuxi, eastern China, Soriot says he wants to use the power of artificial intelligence, robots and apps to help transform diagnosis and disease management.

AstraZeneca has been on a tear in China, more than doubling its sales since 2012, helped by regulatory reforms to fast-track new drugs, and today generates 18 per cent of revenue in the country — a far higher proportion than rivals.

Yet Soriot is anxious to do more to keep doctors and government officials on-side in the world’s second-biggest drugs market, as soaring demand strains the state insurance system and squeezes medicine prices. The company’s underlying conviction is that it has the right medicines across chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and respiratory disorders to win in China. Soriot believes that can it keep AstraZeneca growing in a pivotal market in the coming years, even though annual growth is likely to slow to nearer 15 per cent from the breakneck 33 per cent seen in the first half of 2018.

“The government wants to give access to better medicines to more people,” said Soriot, who admitted that pressure on prices had come sooner than he expected. “To some extent the economy is growing so there is more money to do that, but there is not enough money. They have to make room in the budget for innovation,” he added.

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