Even as the deadly swine flu virus threatens to derail the economy, pharmaceutical firms like Roche and Glaxo-SmithKline, which have been relatively unscathed by the ongoing economic downturn, are gearing up to take an active role in combating the spread of the disease.
Although no case of swine flu has been reported on the Chinese mainland, drug producers here, both foreign and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) makers, are preparing for any eventuality.
Roche's Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and GSK's zanamivir (Relenza) have been earmarked as early-stage treatment for swine flu.
In China, Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group had been authorized by the Switzerland-based Roche to produce and distribute oseltamivir since 2006. The medicine has proved effective against cases of bird flu infection when it was hit China in 2007.
The company, however, has not planned for any expansion in production capacity at present. "Ever since bird flu was brought under control, sales of this anti-virus medicine have dropped. But we have some stock (of the medicine)," said Yin Qinxie, a spokesman of the group.
"We are keeping a close watch on this epidemic. If there is an emergency, we will be able to take action immediately," said Yin. Shanghai Pharmaceutical has enough monthly production capacity to take care of 200,000 patients, he said. The other drug, GSK's Zanamivir is not yet available in China.
TCM companies too have a good share of the virus prevention market.
Hutchison Whampoa Guangzhou Baiyunshan Chinese Medicine Company Ltd said it would expand production of Banlangen, a TCM that proved to be effective against SARS. Beijing-based Tongrentang and Zhuhai-headquartered Livzon also have plans to expand capacity.
Wang Ming, pharmaceutical analyst at Sinolink Securities, said even though no cases have been reported so far, people are gearing up to prevent infection.
"Based on our experience during SARS, the demand for Banlangen and some other anti-virus TCMs will quickly surge and we are prepared," said Li Chuyuan, general manager of Baiyunshan.
"Chinese companies might also get a chance to develop an anti-swine flu vaccine, since they have showed prowess in controlling bird flu in China," said Jiao Haomeng, an analyst at Central China Securities, citing China Animal Husbandry Industry Co Ltd and Inner Mongolia Jinyu Group as examples.