AstraZeneca's facility is in Wuxi, near Shanghai.
Chart showing health expenditure as a percentage of GDP.
The city of Shanghai is a good location for AstraZeneca as its economy is growing at fantastic pace.
The new packaging line at the Wuxi plant will allow 40 million more units per year to be packaged.

In early 2001, AstraZeneca inaugurated a pharmaceutical plant in the Wuxi region of northeastern China.

The Shanghai region was selected, as it was one of the fastest growing regions of China in an economic sense, and is where AstraZeneca China established its headquarters.

Chinese pharmaceuticals market

With a total population of more than one billion, China is still seen as a new market for AstraZeneca. It is expected to develop into the world’s largest pharmaceutical market by the end of 2020 due to a high level of investment and a vibrant economy. This has led to many of the multinational pharmaceutical giants hurrying to set up production in mainland China, hoping to gain a market share of such a big and fast-growing pharmaceutical market.

AstraZeneca is already established in China, and for the company to remain a leading player in the region it was felt an investment in a new factory was required. This investment has continued since the Wuxi plant first opened in 2001.

Wuxi pharmaceutical plant

Approximately $134m was invested in the Wuxi manufacturing plant, which saw the construction of buildings and machinery. The plant was completed in 2000 and operations began in 2001.

“Approximately $134m has been invested in the manufacturing plant at the Wuxi site.”

Wuxi is one of AstraZeneca’s largest manufacturing investments in Asia. The site covers 96,000m² and 36,000m² is construction floor space. More than 95% of the products that AstraZeneca sells in China are manufactured in Wuxi.

AstraZeneca inaugurated a $3.8m packaging line in April 2006, the fifth anniversary of the Wuxi site’s opening. This increased the annual capacity of the plant by 40 million packages.

Innovation centre

In March 2007, AstraZeneca announced that Shanghai’s Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park would be the initial base for its Innovation Centre China (ICC). The ICC was announced in May 2006 as part of a larger $100m research and development (R&D) investment package. It was the primary focus of AstraZeneca’s investment in China.

The ICC focuses on the benefits and value of innovative medicines for Chinese patients, initially concentrating on cancer through the development of knowledge about Chinese patients, biomarkers and genetics (translational medicine).

“The centre employs more than 70 pre-clinical scientists and physicians, who are involved in the progress of both early and later-stage drug research projects.”

The ICC opened in February 2008 and features state-of-the-art biomedical informatics capabilities and advanced IT support. An existing facility was renovated to provide a base to build capabilities and skills in China prior to the establishment of a permanent state-of-the-art site. AstraZeneca planned to relocate the ICC to a new site in 2012.

The centre employs more than 70 pre-clinical scientists and physicians, which are involved in the progress of both early and later-stage drug research projects. In addition, AstraZeneca has expanded its clinical research capabilities and increased the number of scientific collaborations with local Chinese organisations.

In 2006, AstraZeneca signed a three-year deal worth $14m with Wuxi Pharmatech for compound collection synthesis and high-throughput screening. The company is also working with Shanghai Jiao Tong University on the genetics of schizophrenia.

In 2008, the Wuxi Pharmatech agreement was extended to expand AstraZeneca’s global compound collection. Wuxi produces more than one million compounds per year for screening against disease target assays. The outsourcing of R&D and development work is becoming more and more popular among big pharma companies looking to cut costs.

One of AstraZeneca’s recent successes is the licensing Cubicin, a new antibiotic for skin infections, in the Chinese market.

Electro deionisation and E-Cell

Perhaps the most interesting equipment in the plant is an E-Cell system, which removes ions from process water using conventional ion exchange resins. Applying an electrical current across the bed forces the continual migration of contaminant ions from the feed water into the concentrate stream, purifying the water. This process requires no regeneration chemicals and produces no hazardous waste stream.

The electro deionisation system features a robust modular design that handles the flow rate demands of industrial applications. It has the ability to benefit virtually every pure water application, and substantially reduces the chemical infrastructure needed, maintaining water quality in excess of 16MOhm/cm.

“This process requires no regeneration chemicals and produces no hazardous waste stream.”

Electro deionisation is an effective method of cleaning water, without the chemicals that are needed in normal ion-exchange technology. It also involves the same basic type of filter material as in conventional ion-exchange technology. However, it uses an electric current to continuously regenerate the filter material.

Until recently the technology had been expensive for small users, but it is becoming more commonly used in industry due to reduced investment costs.

Wuxi expansions

The manufacturing centre at Wuxi has been regularly improved. One of the latest projects was the expansion of the filling and freeze-drying facilities at the plant. Worth CNY13m (£1.4m), the project began in March 2008 by Pharmadule.

Pharmadule was responsible for the installation of the original filling and freeze-drying facilities at the plant in 2000. These were installed in a modular fashion in case there was a need for expansion.

The expansion was completed by early 2009. This short timescale was possible because 90% of the construction work was completed at the Pharmadule facility in Sweden. The new equipment was delivered as a module and integrated into the existing facility.

A regional packaging and goods-receiving centre was opened at the Wuxi site in 2010. It required an estimated investment of $50m. The drugs from the centre are distributed to the entire Asia-Pacific (APAC) region.

A new injection solution plant is also being constructed at the site. The groundbreaking ceremony was held in April 2011.

The 4,000m² injection solution plant will include three freeze dryers, an inspection station, two sterile filling lines and a packing line. It will have an annual production capacity of 30 million vials of Nexium and Losec drugs, used for the treatment of heartburn and acid-related diseases.

The engineering, procurement, construction management and validation services for the project are being provided by NNE Pharmaplan