China probes French drugmaker Sanofi for alleged bribery

BEIJING (AP/Reuters) - China has started investigating French drugmaker Sanofi for allegedly bribing more than 500 Chinese doctors with about 1.7 million yuan (S$351,000) of payments to raise sales, China's Xinhua state news agency said.

Xinhua on Saturday cited a Health Bureau official as saying the team investigating Sanofi would include corruption officials and the Beijing Municipal Health Bureau, and it would look for clinical research programmes with lists of patient names and medical reports.

Sanofi said this week it took "very seriously" allegations published in a Chinese newspaper on Thursday that its staff bribed more than 500 doctors in China in 2007 to raise sales.

An anonymous whistleblower told the 21st Century Business Herald newspaper that Sanofi staff paid bribes totalling about 1.7 million yuan to 503 doctors at 79 hospitals in Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou and Guangzhou in late 2007.

The paper, citing documents provided by the anonymous whistleblower, said that in 2007 Sanofi paid doctors 80 yuan every time a patient bought its products, with the largest payment being 11,200 yuan.

Most of the payments were made to medical staff in hospitals in Beijing, the commercial hub of Shanghai, the southern city of Guangzhou and the eastern city of Hangzhou, and were listed as "research expenses", the report claimed.

Sanofi said in a statement it was aware of the report but it said it was premature to comment on events that may have occurred in 2007.

It said it had zero tolerance for any unethical practices.

Chinese investigations into bribery and overpricing have centred on Britain's GlaxoSmithKline, but the latest developments suggest they could have a wider impact across the pharmaceuticals industry.

Other companies including Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly & Co and Belgium's UCB have all reported visits from the authorities to their Chinese offices.

Analysts have said the investigation into pharmaceuticals are likely to precede a push by the authorities for stricter price controls, which could cut annual growth in drug sales in China by as much as half to 10 per cent.

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