Some Asian countries are racing to ease import restrictions for needed goods that could save lives. Also, the Asian private sector is unveiling a raft of new artificial intelligence, telehealth and data privacy technologies, as consumers isolated by COVID-19 outbreaks are increasingly driven to seek healthcare solutions online.
At the same time, slowdowns caused by the virus have had ominous impacts on the chain of medical supplies that originate in China and are sold throughout the Western world.
The shape of such impacts is as fast shifting as the virus itself. Much remains unknown. But half a year into the crisis, some winners and losers are beginning to emerge.
Across Asia, governments are easing regulations on medical device imports. China’s National Medical Products Administration (NMPA) is expediting the registration of medical protective clothing devices that meet relevant standards from the European Union, the United States or Japan. Its Center for Medical Device Evaluation (CMDE) announced it would extend deadlines for some product renewals. And in one province, Chinese officials dealt with a mask shortage (mainly due to poor quality of domestically made masks) by temporarily permitting the import of unregistered masks.
Other countries are also easing restrictions. Since the pandemic began, Singapore has relaxed registration requirements on particulate respirators, protective gear, surgical masks and thermometers for measuring human body temperature. Malaysia has made it easier to import face masks. And Thailand has eased regulations on hand sanitizer.
In China and Hong Kong, investment is pouring into the healthcare sector, primarily from China funds and affluent Chinese investors. And the government is pushing to transfer as many healthcare services as possible into the digital sphere to make the provision of healthcare less burdensome for hospitals and clinics. The most striking move in this direction came this spring, when China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) moved for the first time to permit initial medical diagnoses to be conducted online—and covered by China’s national health insurance system.
With consumers increasingly reluctant to seek medical care in person, China’s move will accelerate the online healthcare push. Already, China’s healthcare institutions and physicians are offering a growing array of services online, employing cutting edge data sharing, remote conferencing and medical privacy technologies. Medical diagnosis is being moved away from large hospitals and increasingly online. Artificial intelligence is being employed in new ways to analyze patient data. And the Chinese government is responding by strengthening protections on intellectual property and bolstering community health centers to diagnoses of patients—before they need hospitalization.
Large Chinese corporations are converging on healthcare as they seek to develop all-encompassing apps offering diagnosis, prescriptions, referrals, appointment bookings, one-hour drug delivery and even insurance.
In Korea, government investment is ramping up, partnering with the private sector to develop more and better ventilators and other devices needed by COVID-19 patients. Between now and 2025, the government aims to allocate $980 million to the development of in vitro diagnostic devices and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). Some of that money would also go to other devices used to treat the virus and to medical device research into the treatment of other infectious diseases. The project, a joint venture between Korean ministries that manage trade regulation, energy, science, welfare and health and the safety of food and pharmaceuticals, is geared toward ensuring Korea bolsters its medical device industry, making it more competitive with Western device companies.
But in China, slowdowns caused by the coronavirus have deeply affected the amount of medical supply exports that Western consumers have become accustomed to counting on. Orthopedic implants and MRIs produced in China are becoming harder to find in large quantities. So are some device components or sub-assemblies produced in China.
Some low-tech medical products normally sourced from China, including examination gloves, medical masks, protective clothing, infrared thermometers, surgical goggles and medical disinfectants, are also now being sought elsewhere. Others are moving more slowly to market, as Chinese regulators bolster inspections after some medical products came under scrutiny due to poor quality concerns.
Besides devices, Western pharmaceutical manufacturers confront shortages of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), excipients and other intermediate drug substances needed for drug manufacturing. Eighty percent of APIs used in the United States originate from abroad. And China is the world’s leading supplier of API’s for coronary, cancer and antibiotic drugs. Some U.S. policymakers have proposed a ban on buying Chinese APIs from 2022 onward. And Chinese exports overall are being subjected to intensive scrutiny in Washington, DC.
With economic activity down in Asia and throughout Europe and the United States, the pandemic is likely to continue to blow ill winds. But in the medical technology arena, the surging interest in artificial intelligence, telehealth and remote data analysis and diagnosis is likely to present significant opportunities for medtech manufactures over the next few years.