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Beijing Lands $1.5 Billion Merck Research Commitment

Merck may be a latecomer among the giant pharmaceutical companies setting up research shops in China, but it has made by far the largest single research investment to date. The New Jersey-based firm, known as MSD outside the United States, last week said it plans to spend $1.5 billion over the next 5 years on R&D, under the direction of a pioneer staff of 260 now in rented offices in Beijing.

Zhang Ming-Qiang, vice president and site head of MSD R&D Asia, spoke with ScienceInsider about the company's plans. Formerly chief technology officer at Roche's R&D Centre in Shanghai, Zhang joined Merck earlier this year. He says Merck anticipates that China's pharma market—which is currently second in the world—will become the world's largest in 10 to 15 years. Two significant challenges lie ahead, according to Zhang. Although China has a large pool of talented young researchers, it is short on mature scientists experienced in drug R&D who can serve as mentors. Second, Zhang says, China's regulatory landscape is unclear. Chinese regulations are less transparent than U.S. procedures, for example, and companies often have trouble discerning a clear process to follow when they apply for new drug registration. But Zhang is confident that regulations will improve.

Merck previously established a commercial headquarters in Shanghai and manufacturing facilities in other parts of China. The company expects to complete the first phase of construction on the new site in 2014; it will house about "600 employees working in the areas of drug discovery, translational research, clinical development, regulatory affairs and external scientific research programs," according to a company announcement.