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Novartis exec 'orchestrated swine-flu fraud'

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Gazzetta del Sud


Investigators believe vaccine prices were inflated


Siena, June 20 - Prosecutors in Siena in charge of a suspected fraud case at Swiss multinational Novartis believe that its vaccine division swindled the Italian health ministry out of 2.7 million euros in 2012 by inflating the price of a component of its H1N1 swine flu vaccine. The health ministry ordered the suspension of vaccine supplies in 2010 after the swine flu emergency abated. A vaccination campaign to immunize up to 40% of Italy's 60 million people began in November 2009 after Italy reported six deaths related to swine flu over the previous months. The CEO of Novartis's vaccine division, Francesco Gulli, is under investigation and two Italian plants of the Swiss multinational were searched Friday. Prosecutors have also accused the multinational's division Novartis Vaccines Diagnostics of failing to adopt precautions to prevent the suspected fraud. The probe is connected to another investigation in Siena over a suspected tax fraud at the company. Friday's was not the first Italian probe to hit the Swiss pharmaceutical giant.

Ealier this month finance police searched the offices of the Italian Medicines Agency (Aifa), the authority responsible for drug regulation in the country, as part of a criminal probe into Swiss pharmaceutical companies Roche and Novartis for alleged market manipulation and fraud. The companies are suspected of collusion to hamper use of a cheap eye drug in favour of a more expensive one. The alleged cartel promoting Novartis's Lucentis over Roche's Avastin is believed to have cost Italy's national health service over 45 million euros in 2012 alone, while future costs could potentially reach 600 million euros a year. When news of the probe emerged in March Italian consumer association Codacons said it would ask the country's audit court to verify whether Aifa had acted negligently in the affair. On March 5 Italy's Antitrust authority fined Novartis and Roche a total of over 180 million euros for alleged collusion to manipulate the market in Italy. "The two companies made an illegal agreement to hamper the spread of the use of a very cheap pharmaceutical, (Roche's) Avastin, in the treatment of the most widespread eye pathology among the elderly and other serious eye diseases, to favour a much more expensive product, (Novartis's) Lucentis, artificially differentiating the two products," read an Antitrust statement. It added that this had cost the Italian national health service over 45 million euros in 2012 alone and that the additional costs in the future could potentially reach 600 million euros a year. Novartis, which was fined 92 million euros, and Roche, which was handed a 90.5-million-euro penalty, have both said the accusations are groundless and will appeal to the administrative courts.

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