Unlocking the Potential of Technology for the Benefit of Health in China

Photo: ZHENG Airong, a Chinese vaccine doctor, promotes vaccination knowledge in rural areas. Numerous doctors like Zheng are dedicated to the health of hundreds of millions of children in rural China.

Three years ago China engaged in what the World Health Organization describes as “the largest health reform the world has seen”. The extraordinary breadth and speed of the Healthy China 2030 overhaul paves the way to bring new medicines to the Chinese people faster and provides great opportunities to develop digital health solutions. 

“China is strategically important to Sanofi, and we want to contribute to the ‘Healthy China 2030’ initiative,” says Paul Hudson, CEO of Sanofi, during the second China International Import Expo that took place earlier this month. “By 2025, we intend to bring over 30 innovative medicines and vaccines to China. We will continue to expand investments in China, enhancing our R&D and production operations, and unlock the potential of technology and digital to improve patient outcomes.”

Where things used to be slow, they are now moving faster than anywhere else in the world. 

Because of administrative and regulatory hurdles about clinical trials’ results generated abroad, Chinese patients often had to wait years longer than Europeans or Americans to access innovative drugs. “Five years ago, it was impossible for Sanofi China's innovative drugs to keep pace with the world. Three years ago, it was a challenge. Today, we are much closer to the reality of having quick access to new medicines, and this presents a big opportunity for Sanofi in China,” says Pius Hornstein, Sanofi’s China Country Chair. 

The Healthy China 2030 framework relaxes regulations on patient enrollment in clinical trials, making it possible to generate more diverse data from the most populous country in the world (1.4 billion people). This could potentially dramatically increase the quality of new drugs developed in China, especially in the area of rare diseases where Sanofi is a leader and where, by definition, it is much more difficult to find patients. 

“Beyond just the discovery of new products, Sanofi’s focus on innovation includes a high priority in digital healthcare. Digital innovation lies at the center of Sanofi China’s future growth strategy because here you have scale, speed and expertise. We envision a future where China is a source of innovation that benefits the rest of the world, on par with the U.S.A and Europe, especially in the sector of digital health: fully tailored, individualized treatments, based on sharp insights generated by big data,” says Hornstein. Case in point: in 2019, the company inaugurated its fourth global research institute in Suzhou after those in Europe and the U.S.A, as well as a new global R&D site in Chengdu-a tech-focused operation to strengthen Sanofi’s digital capabilities and speed up analysis of its clinical trials. This move takes advantage of the overhaul of the regulatory framework but also the exceptionally rich native digital ecosystem.

The shift from the traditional, hospital-based Chinese model of care to a reinforced primary healthcare system is at the heart of Healthy China 2030 vision. To accompany this transition Sanofi has already kicked off six partnerships with internet hospitals to provide multi-dimensional medical services to patients as one of the first companies to do so. With 200 internet hospitals that already treat hundreds of millions of patients from their home, China offers unique opportunities to develop innovative digital health solutions that can avoid costly and uncomfortable hospital stays, especially for the elderly or those suffering from chronic diseases (300 million Chinese citizens). Internet hospitals also improve the accessibility of healthcare. People can choose their doctor online and get the medicine delivered to their home.

Since 2011, Sanofi has invested in primary care in over 1,600 counties in rural areas and multiplied local initiatives to offer digital-enabled treatment solutions. For example, it is building in Meishan (Sichuan province) a grassroots approach on diabetes intervention in collaboration with public and private local stakeholders as well as the China Diabetes Innovation Alliance. 

Launched in 2018, the “Meishan model” will, over the next five years, create a comprehensive disease management model for patients, backed with full use of artificial intelligence and big data, to promote a complete 360° process of screening, diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. 

“In China, Sanofi works with all important stakeholders including government, hospitals, leading commercial insurance, internet and technology companies, as well as startups and academia, to jointly create new solutions enabled by digital technologies. Our ultimate goal is to leverage digital innovations as enablers further enhance the positive impact on patient outcomes in conjunction with medicines, improve disease management, and help the country achieve the goals of Healthy China 2030”, says Hornstein. 

Sanofi has started collaborating with the most successful internet giants like Ali Health, a branch of Ali Baba. In November 2019 it announced the start of a collaboration with Tencent, owner of the popular app WeChat, in the field of rare, immunological, neurological and chronic diseases, as well as an agreement with Ping An International Smart City Technology to transform the way diabetes patients manage their condition and interact with their physicians and health care stakeholders.

Sanofi also signed a strategic collaboration with the Shenzhen Municipal People’s Government to improve access to innovative vaccines using digital health technologies and applications to better protect the lives of Chinese people. Sanofi, together with its partners, is leveraging the power of digital innovation to benefit the health of the people in China.

Beyond those giants, China is also a rich, diverse and dynamic network of startups that are key to trigger out-of-the-box ideas. For example, last year Sanofi launched an innovation hub in Shanghai to build a digital innovative ecosystem with local startups such as Gyenno. Sanofi and the tech company jointly devised a high-tech spoon which mitigates the vibrations caused by tremors of Parkinsons’ patients, allowing them to feed themselves alone and with dignity. Patients can use this solution to track their medications, symptoms and even connect directly with physicians. Meanwhile, the intelligent spoon collects patient specific usage data, which helps physicians understand their patient’s disease progression as well as the efficacy of their prescribed medication plan. This is a new frontier for real-world data research in the field of Parkinson's Disease, as multi-center clinical trials with several leading hospitals were officially launched in September this year, with plans to enroll 100 patients.

And earlier this month, Sanofi signed a strategic agreement with Atman, a pioneering startup company in the field of medical language intelligence. They will work together to create a bilingual (English and Chinese) medical information platform enabled by artificial intelligence and natural language processing technology.

"To take full advantage of the breath of fresh air blowing on China’s healthcare business, one of our challenges is to attract and retain bright entrepreneurial people, either within Sanofi China itself, where half of our workforce is under 30; or by injecting part of the startup mentality within our analog model. The transformation is underway and gaining momentum,” says Hornstein. 

China Infographic