Japan taps an unexpected drugmaker for its coronavirus treatment

February 25, 2020, 3:24 PM UTC

Shares in Fujifilm Holdings Corp jumped as much as 8.8% on Tuesday after the Japanese government said it would recommend the use of Fujifilm’s anti-flu drug Avigan to treat people sickened by coronavirus.

Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said the ministry would recommend the drug for use in coronavirus treatments after test dosages appeared effective in mild and asymptomatic cases at at least two medical institutions over the weekend.

On Tuesday, Japan had 160 coronavirus cases, 22 recoveries, and one death. The coronavirus has sickened more than 80,000 people globally and caused 2,700 deaths; almost 28,000 people have recovered from the Covid-19 disease it causes.

China’s National Health Commission is also studying Avigan’s efficacy in treating coronavirus, Bloomberg reported.

Fujifilm’s role in combatting the coronavirus is the latest turn for a decades-old company that’s reinvented itself.

Fujifilm, the legacy Japanese camera-maker, is perhaps best known for its iconic black and gray point-and-shoots and for the bulbous, pastel-hued instant cameras popular among young people today who’ve latched onto nostalgia for physical snapshots and film. But Fujifilm, founded in 1934 as a local manufacturer of photographic film and dry plates, has developed formidable businesses in medical diagnostic equipment, skincare, and pharmaceuticals in recent years.

Fujifilm cameras were on display at a Harper’s Bazaar exhibit at the Plaza Hotel on September 7, 2018 in New York City.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Harper’s Bazaar

Unlike its longtime rival Eastman Kodak, which for years enjoyed a near-monopoly in the U.S. camera market comparable to Fujifilm’s dominance in Japan, Fujifilm managed to adapt to the sea change of digital photography. (Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012, after blundering opportunities to adapt to the technology shift.)

Fujifilm in 1988 introduced the world’s first digital portable camera, the Fujix DS-1P, the first consumer camera with a reusable memory card. But digital disruption still threatened to sink the company as the market flooded with competition from Nikon, Canon, Sony, and Panasonic. Fujifilm chief executive officer Shigetaka Komori led the company out of crisis at the turn of the century by drastically cutting costs and downsizing and then diversifying Fujifilm’s sources of revenue.

Under Komori, who’s been with the company for 55 years, Fujifilm strengthened its medical equipment business and expanded into skincare, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Imaging solutions or photography made up 16% of Fujifilm’s $22.6 billion in sales for the year ended March 31, 2019, compared to 33% of sales in 2000. Health care and material solutions, meanwhile, made up 43% of total revenue in 2019.

Fujifilm launched its own anti-aging skincare brand, Astalift, in 2007. Komori told the Straits Times in September that his knowledge of the effects of light and oxidation on photographs helped him understand human skin: both deteriorate with age and under exposure to ultraviolet rays; both benefit from anti-oxidation pigments and nanotechnology solutions.

“I had already thought about going into the cosmetics business for a long time,” Komori said.

An employee arranges at Fujifilm Holdings Corp.’s Astalift brand skincare in Tokyo in 2015. The parent company launched Astalift in a diversification push in 2007.
Kiyoshi Ota—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Fujifilm bought Toyoma Chemical in 2008 and renamed it Fujifilm Toyoma Chemical. The pharmaceutical company that developed Avigan, the drug now being tested as a potential treatment for coronavirus patients, was one of several acquisitions in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology that Fujifilm made over the last decade.

Komori said in September 2019 that Fujifilm aims to double sales in its health care business to reach $10 billion over the next few years.

Avigan, which has been used to treat Ebola, is not available on the market, but the Japanese government kept stockpiles of the drug in preparation for influenza outbreaks.

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