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Korea marks first trade surplus in pharmaceuticals in 2020

Ministry of Food and Drug Safety logo
Ministry of Food and Drug Safety logo

South Korea marked its first trade surplus in medicines in 2020, backed by gains in drug exports, the government said Sunday.

According to data from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, the country posted a surplus of 1.39 trillion won ($1.21 billion) in pharmaceutical trade in 2020, which grew 62.5 percent from the year earlier.

The export of drugs jumped 92.3 percent to 7.93 trillion won, taking up 79.6 percent of all outbound shipments, the ministry explained.

It was the first time the country saw a trade surplus in the sector since the government began compiling pharmaceutical production and trade data in 1998.

The top three export items were all biopharmaceuticals from Celltrion, a local biosimilar drug maker.

Ranked No. 1 is Celltrion’s infliximab biosimilar Remsima (100 mg), which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, recording 543.5 billion won in outbound shipments.

It was followed by breast cancer treatment biosimilar Herzuma and blood cancer treatment Truxima, which recorded 98.6 billion won and 75.3 billion won, respectively.

The ministry said the country’s biopharmaceutical output jumped 54.9 percent on-year to record 3.93 trillion won in 2020. The biopharmaceutical industry covers medical products that are made with materials originating from organisms.

Germany was the biggest importer of Korean pharmaceutical products, accounting for $1.85 billion, followed by the United States ($780 million) and Turkey ($589 million).

Korea imported the largest amount of drugs from the US ($977 million), then from Germany ($896 million) and China ($887 million).

By company, Celltrion was the No. 1 exporting firm last year, logging 1.47 trillion won in overseas shipments and witnessing a whopping 149.2 percent on-year growth. Hanmi Pharmaceutical came second in the list with 1.01 trillion won.

Separately, exports of quasi-drugs -- which the government defines as health-related products but are not medicines -- reached 9.96 trillion won in 2020, up 62.5 percent from the year earlier.

Face mask exports recorded 339.9 billion won, taking 74.5 percent of quasi-drug exports, with the item in high demand globally amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Jo He-rim (