French drugmaker Sanofi
An office belonging to French drugmaker Sanofi in Shanghai

French drugmaker Sanofi is being probed in China for bribery, as the country continues its crackdown on illegal activity in the scandal-hit pharmaceuticals industry.

Beijing municipal authorities have set up a joint team to probe Sanofi, the official Xinhua news agency reported. The probe comes after a Chinese newspaper published bribery allegations against the company.

According to an anonymous whistleblower, cited by Guangzhou-based 21st Century Business Herald, Sanofi staff paid bribes totalling 1.69m yuan ($274,000; €205,000; £177,000) to 503 doctors at 79 hospitals in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hangzhou, in late 2007, to encourage them to prescribe Sanofi products.

The payments were listed as "research expenses", according to the report. The newspaper alleged Sanofi paid doctors 80 yuan every time a patient bought its products, with the largest payment being 11,200 yuan.

The Beijing municipal health bureau will coordinate with disciplinary authorities to investigate the case, a bureau official told Xinhua.

In its response, Sanofi earlier said it takes the allegations very seriously but noted "it would be premature to comment on events that may have occurred in 2007".

"We have zero tolerance to any unethical practice," the Paris-headquartered firm said, adding it has "established processes in place for reviewing and addressing such issues in a manner that is consistent with our legal and ethical obligations".

Further Measures for Pharma Crackdown

Following allegations of bribery and price fixing in the pharmaceutical sector, Chinese authorities are conducting extensive investigations into drug pricing, involving 60 foreign and domestic companies.

Furthermore, China's National Health and Family Planning Commission will step up efforts to curb commercial bribery in the pharmaceutical industry and health service sector, according to a spokesman. The commission will blacklist pharmaceutical companies and individuals involved in bribery, he said.

British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has been facing investigation for suspected bribery and tax-related offences in China since early July.

China's Ministry of Public Security accused unnamed GSK executives of routing 3bn yuan in bribes to doctors through 700 travel agencies and consultancies over six years.

In connection with the allegations, Chinese authorities have taken several GSK executives into custody and claim a number admitted to criminal charges of bribery and tax law violations.

GSK also admitted some Chinese executives appeared to have broken the law but CEO Andrew Witty said the head office had no prior knowledge about the wrongdoing.