Angling Pfizer, AstraZeneca jumps into commercial PD-(L)1 fight in China

Is a Big Pharma commercial showdown brewing in China’s PD-(L)1 market?

Months after Pfizer outlined a sprawling $200 million pact with CStone partly to market its experimental PD-L1 in China, AstraZeneca is wading into the same waters by lassoing certain commercial rights toripalimab from Junshi Biosciences.

Notably, both have their own checkpoint drugs. But unlike Pfizer’s Bavencio, AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi is actually approved in China for unresectable non-small cell lung cancer. And in toripalimab, the British drugmaker is scoring a more mature drug that earned China’s first-ever approval for a homegrown PD-1 back in 2018.

The move adds another thread to the intricate web that Western biopharma players have been weaving with Chinese PD-(L)1 drugs and their developers.

BeiGene, for instance, is allied with Amgen for a dual R&D/commercial arrangement in China but gave Novartis a second PD-L1 in tislelizumab; Pfizer partner CStone licensed the US rights for sugemalimab to EQRx; while Eli Lilly has locked in its own PD-1 with its longtime buddy Innovent.

AstraZeneca will be tasked with pitching toripalimab for bladder cancer — an indication already under review at the National Medical Products Administration — and other cancer types in “non-core areas.” Junshi is keeping the core areas to itself.

There was no breakdown on the financials for their deal.

“We are confident that by leveraging the extensive networks AstraZeneca has established over the years, and especially by utilizing its ability to promote in the county-level markets, this innovative drug with excellent performance in efficacy and safety will achieve greater success in the Chinese market and will enable more patients to receive timely and effective treatment,” Junshi CEO Li Ning said.

Under Leon Wang, AstraZeneca has established some of the most extensive pharma presence in China, involved in everything from biotech incubators to AI innovation hubs. Junshi, meanwhile, has been enjoying a higher profile internationally since hand-picked by Eli Lilly to develop a second Covid-19 antibody to be combined with the one from AbCellera.

More recently, the biosimilars maker Coherus paid $150 million in cash to license toripalimab for the US.

Just as that deal expanded its global commercial network, Li suggested that the idea is for the new PD-1 pact to pave the way for more “in-depth collaborations with AstraZeneca in a wider range of fields.”