The accelerated rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China (the so-called 'BRIC' countries) is one of the most profound legacies of the financial crisis. Asian economies have come out of the downturn with strong growth rates and, in most cases, without having had to bail out financial institutions.
While Europe is dealing with deficits, capital-rich China is pumping money into beefing up its research capacity.
India is already the biggest producer of generic medicines in the world, and it is now also looking to establish its research-driven industry. A report by McKinsey, a consulting company, says India's pharma industry will quadruple by 2020 as it ''moves towards the top tier''.
The BRIC countries are investing in innovation and have demographics on their side – a young workforce keen on science and technology. Even EU thinkers expect India and China to have overtaken Europe on R&D by 2025. The days of Asia relying on low-tech, low-cost products appear to be numbered as the BRICs move up the innovation value chain.
Strength in the medicines sector – fuelled by innovation in the biosciences and pharmaceutical industries – is often seen as an index of how advanced an economy is. It is the quintessential knowledge-economy industry.
EU medicine makers head to Asia
The combination of lower costs and rising standards, along with the need to be on the doorstep of emerging markets, has seen several global pharmaceutical companies open research and manufacturing plants in Asia.
Drug-maker MSD has broken ground on a €120 million medicine factory in Zhejiang Province, China and GSK has joined forces with Korea's biggest drug-maker, while Astra Zeneca has expanded its presence in Asia. Asia promises growth at a time when European markets are shrinking as governments seek to slash their medicine bills.
On top of marketing and distribution, R&D has also left Europe. Over the past five years, fewer than 40% of patients enrolled in major clinical trials examined by the European Medicines Agency were European. India, Vietnam and Indonesia are just some of the countries to which clinical trials have been outsourced.
When the H1N1 influenza pandemic hit in 2009, the big names in European and US pharmaceuticals set about developing a vaccine and bringing it to market as quickly as possible. However, it was a Chinese firm, Sinovac, that was first to announce a single-dose vaccine.
All signs point to a growing role for emerging economies in the pharmaceutical sector, even if European firms might still hope that the overall size of the market will expand greatly as Asian consumers become better off.
Can trade deals boost medicines exports?
Free Trade Agreements currently being negotiated between the EU and South Korea, India and the Mercosur countries could boost exports for Europe's pharmaceutical sector.
The deals, each at different stages of negotiation, are also likely to include tighter intellectual property protection, which could help protect Western companies from local copycats.
Emerging markets still have catching up to do
Intellectual property protection is just one area where countries like India and China are working to improve enforcement. Both countries are major sources of counterfeit medicines – a phenomenon that hurts local research-based firms as much as thwarting Europe's exports.
A generation ago, China had barely begun the 'reform and opening up' policy which set it on its current high-growth path. Unsurprisingly, standards of schools, universities, factories and laboratories are patchy. Some newer universities in 'tier one' cities on China's eastern coast are top of the range, but many others look untouched by the economic boom. Similarly, India and Brazil have huge impoverished populations.
The arrival of the BRIC countries at the top table of knowledge-driven industries like the pharma and biotech sectors forces a reappraisal of what it means to be a 'developed' or 'developing' country.
The EU and US have been making noises about redefining what it means to be a developing nation. There should, say some, be a number of categories reflecting various stages of development, thus separating China and Brazil from the Ivory Coast and Sudan.
At the European Business Summit in Brussels, the US trade ambassador referred to China as an 'advanced emerging economy', while EU trade chief Karel De Gucht said China and Brazil are not in the same boat as poor African nations.
The Chinese Ambassador to the EU, Song Zhe, has said China remains a 'rising developing country' with shortfalls in scientific and innovation capacity.
For Western politicians, awkward questions are beginning to arise, such as how much help emerging economic powers will receive from Europe given that they are already eating into market share. Will Europeans still help their competitors when those competitors are juggling investment in innovation with lifting people out of poverty? Rising competition in the high-value medicines industry may help illustrate how the world is changing.