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Drugmakers see pressure points in emerging markets

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GlaxoSmithKline Chief Executive Andrew Witty says he is an "extreme bull" on emerging markets, echoing the view of Big Pharma peers that the world's fast-growing economies will drive drug sales as Western markets flag.

But GSK and others are finding that selling medicines into countries such as China, Russia, Brazil and Turkey is not plain sailing.

Quarterly results from leading pharmaceutical companies highlight some unexpected hiccups in the emerging market growth story, as governments flex their muscles to limit the cash bonanza for international companies.

At the same time, law enforcers are looking hard at sales practices, raising issues for some over bribery allegations.

AstraZeneca saw emerging market sales growth slip to seven percent in the third quarter from ten percent in the second and 13 percent in the first, hit by an upset in Brazil, where generics have arrived early for key drugs Crestor and Seroquel.

Sales to China by Denmark's Novo Nordisk, the world's biggest supplier of insulin, fell three percent in the quarter, due to healthcare reforms there designed to curb costs.

And GSK said it had seen price squeezes in Turkey and Russia - though Witty said such factors would not derail the British group's emerging market growth trajectory.

"I'm an extreme bull on emerging markets. This is a very fast-growing volume environment ... (but) they are not immune from pressure," Witty told reporters.

BRANDED GENERICS

In developed markets, sales of Big Pharma's top-selling drugs are stalling as many lose patent protection and cash-strapped governments, particularly in Europe, slash the price they will pay for treatments as part of an austerity drive.

By contrast, the booming middle classes of Asia and Latin America are widely forecast to offer robust growth for makers of prescription drugs.

By 2015, emerging markets are set to account for 28 percent of global pharmaceuticals spending, up from 12 percent in 2005, while the United States and Europe combined shrink to 44 percent from 61 percent, according to IMS Health.

The bulk of sales in emerging markets come from so-called branded generics - off-patent medicines that command a premium to those made by local suppliers, because the Western drugmaker's name is a proxy for quality.

Tim Race, an industry analyst at Deutsche Bank, believes branded generics will continue to dominate the sales opportunity in the short to medium term but, longer term, the strategy of relying on brands as trusted products will become obsolete.

"It works in some markets where you've got pretty shoddy regulation. But the Chinese and Brazilians and others are quite quickly coming online with better regulation, creating better trust in local products," he said.

In China, the writing is on the wall.

It has traditionally allowed branded generics to enjoy higher prices, known as separate pricing. But a new price list last November slashed separate pricing on nearly 50 treatments out of 200 on the country's essential drug list.

Such measures suggest branded generics could run out of steam as generics become commoditized, according to Chris Stirling, European head of chemicals and pharmaceuticals at KPMG.

INVESTIGATIONS

Harder to pin down, but no less real, is the threat posed by increased scrutiny of sales practices in emerging markets that could cause reputational and commercial damage.

After years of being hauled over the coals for wrongdoings in the United States, drugmakers are now finding the legal net being cast wider.

The U.S. Justice Department has mounted an investigation under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) to see if drugmakers are offering overseas bribes, and Britain, too, has a new Bribery Act that covers overseas payments in a similar way.

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ-N) agreed in April to pay $70 million US to settle U.S. charges that it paid bribes and kickbacks to win business in Greece, Iraq, Poland and Romania, in the first such settlement by a big drug company.

Other investigations are ongoing. AstraZeneca, for example, said in April its conduct in several countries, including China, was being investigated under the FCPA.

In a separate case, the British-based company revealed this week it had been served with a criminal indictment in August relating to alleged improper payments to doctors at the Institute of Oncology and Radiology of Serbia.

The move follows the arrest in June 2010 of institute officials and Serbian representatives of several drug companies, including Roche, the world's biggest maker of cancer drugs.

A spokesman for Roche declined to comment because the case is the subject of ongoing legal proceedings.

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