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The world's leading pharmaceutical giants have shown an enormous amount of interest in emerging Asian markets over recent years. Aside from China, South Korea has consistently proved one of the most popular.

The country has a well-developed and rapidly growing economy, clearly illustrated by a recent forecast for the South Korean pharmaceuticals market, courtesy of Business Monitor International (BMI).

Consumer spending in the nation's drug market is expected to top KRW19,000 billion (£10.7 billion) by the year 2014, with an estimated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.1 per cent in local currency terms.

By 2019, pharmaceutical expenditure was forecast by BMI to reach KRW26,500 billion, boosted by an ageing population, its resultant increase in drug demand and the planned liberalisation of South Korea's health insurance industry.

During the first half of last year, several changes to the country's drug pricing and purchasing frameworks were announced. Its government is currently aiming to reduce maximum drug prices by 15-25 per cent over the coming three years.

According to the BMI report, increased consumptions should be able to offset the majority of these negative pricing pressures. However, if actual growth fails to match expectations, market values could be seriously affected.

South Korea was described in the new research as a "transitional pharmaceutical market", with high single-digit CAGRs expected in the combined sales of over-the-counter (OTC) and prescribed medicines over the next five years.

While these kinds of projections are typically associated with emerging regions – a category into which South Korea unquestionably falls – the operating environment is actually quite similar to that seen in traditional markets.
In fact, the South Korean pharmaceutical trade environment was ranked third of all countries in the Asia Pacific region for the first quarter of 2011. The nation's business environment rating (BER) rose from 67 in the closing three months of 2010, to 67.9 at the start of this year.

Interestingly, this places South Korea seven whole points ahead of China. Looking at 'rewards' and 'risks' indicators, the BMI report puts South Korean markets among the most attractive investment locations in the whole region.

The notion that Asian countries could hold the key to future successes in pharmaceutical technology is nothing new.

In October 2008, an index evaluating emerging areas - in terms of cost, risk and market opportunity for the drug industry – was published by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Although the findings focused largely on China, it was noted by researchers that both clinical trial activity and big pharma investments to boost their Asian presence were accelerating rapidly.

"Within five to ten years, we will be moving from 'made in China' to 'discovered in China'," commented Michael Keech, director at PwC's global pharmaceutical and life sciences industry group.

He added: "Pharmaceutical companies need to make sure they are refining their strategies to make the most of the opportunities presented in Asian countries.
"China and India will continue to spearhead growth in the Asian pharmaceutical sector, but, alongside those countries, Singapore will maintain its position as a centre for research and innovation."

The group pointed out, however, that while the trio of China, India and Singapore would most likely remain hot spots in the Asia Pacific pharmaceutical sector, other countries, including South Korea and Taiwan, would also play increasingly significant roles in drug companies' global expansion.
So while the idea of the Far East being big pharma's "new frontier" is not in itself a breakthrough phenomenon, there appears to have been considerable changes to the region's structure in terms of where the most potential lies.

It would appear that the world's largest drug makers are increasingly seeking expansion into South Korea, which could soon prompt a significant shift in power among Asia's top pharmerging markets.