(Bloomberg) -- After nearly two decades of dominance in treating lymphoma in China, Roche Holding AG is about to face direct competition from a Chinese drugmaker offering a cheaper alternative.

A subsidiary of Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co. expects to launch as soon as May the first prescription of Hanlikang, a rituximab injection for treating non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the company said in Shanghai on Saturday. The drug, approved in February as China’s first biosimilar drug, will sell for 1,648 yuan ($245) for 10 milliliters, about 30 percent cheaper than Roche’s Rituxan.

China has been speeding up approval of life-saving drugs and negotiating with drug makers to lower prices for new treatments to become more affordable under the country’s state-run medical insurance plan. Hanlikang is among a raft of foreign and domestic drugs to go through an expedited process to hit the market, according to China’s National Medical Products Administration.

Roche’s Rituxan is the Swiss pharma giant’s second-biggest selling drug in China, with CSC Financial Co. estimating annual sales of 5 billion yuan. About 88,000 new patients are diagnosed with lymphoma in China each year, and 90 percent of them have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which both Rituxan and Hanlikang target.

Fosun’s Hanlikang may capture sales of 2 billion yuan or more if it’s also approved for treatment of other diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, CSC Financial wrote in a note in February. Fosun’s unit, Shanghai Henlius Biotech Inc., is also working with Argentina-based Biosidus SA to market the drug in Latin America, the company said.

A biosimilar is a generic version of a biologic, products made from living systems such as cells or tissues, as opposed to conventional drugs that have been chemically synthesized. With more than 200 biosimilars under clinical trials, China has more such drugs in the pipeline than any other country in the world, a looming threat to the dominance of the original drugs made by multinationals, which are consistently among the highest priced treatments globally.

Biosimilar makers may get a further boost, as the Trump administration is said to be considering conceding to China’s proposal to shorten the period of protection granted to U.S. drug makers’ biologics in the world’s second-biggest pharmaceutical market. This will allow Chinese biosimilar makers like Fosun Pharma to make their own cheaper versions more quickly.

China has also asked 11 cities including Beijing and Shanghai to bulk-buy generic drugs in a fierce tender process that saw foreign pharmaceutical firms squeezed out by domestic drugmakers willing to slash drug prices by as much as 90 percent.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Dong Lyu in Beijing at dlyu3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rachel Chang at wchang98@bloomberg.net, Jeff Sutherland, Stanley James

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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