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Novartis entangled in controversy

Swiss drugmaker Novartis has been forced to defend unreported payments totalling more than $US1.2 million (AU$1.59 m) that it made to US President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen.

According to Reuters, Novartis – which owns the rights to age-related macular degeneration drug Lucentis outside the US, among other ophthalmic ventures – made the payments in the wake of the Trump’s 2016 election victory. The company has since said it retained Cohen in an effort to learn more about how the new administration would approach healthcare.

However, after the payments became public a spokesperson for the company, which has not been accused of illegal activity, conceded it had made “a mistake” in engaging Cohen and that the extent of their contact amounted to a single meeting in March 2017.

"We continued our transformation this quarter to become a more focused medicines company."
Vas Narasimhan, CEO of Novartis

Despite the limited contact, the company was still summoned by the US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office, who wanted to know about the payments within the context of its ongoing probe into potential meddling in the 2016 US election.

A spokesperson for the company said it considered the matter closed after cooperating fully with the special counsel’s office and providing all the information requested. Further questions were raised about meetings between Trump and Novartis’ current and former CEOs in the wake of the payments, but the company denied there was any connection.

According to Novartis also sought to distance new CEO Dr Vas Narasimhan from the payments by saying the deal was made long before hie was appointed in February.

“This agreement was also in no way related to the group dinner Dr Narasimhan had at the World Economic Forum in Davos with President Trump and 15 Europe based industry leaders,” the spokesperson said.

Novartis made unreported payments to Donald Trump
Novartis made unreported payments to Donald Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen

Mr Michael Avenatti, the attorney assisting porn star Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford) in her attempts to break a non-disclosure agreement related to an alleged 2006 sexual encounter with the US president, revealed the payments along with several others made by various multinational companies, last month.

Sales increase

Prior to the furore over the payments, Novartis had reported a solid first quarter sales increase of around 4%, which was driven by strong sales of key drug products, biopharmaceuticals and emerging growth markets.

The rise meant net sales for the first four months of the year totalled US$12.7 billion (AU$16.85 b), while free cash flow improved by 15% to hit US$1.9 billion (AU$2.52 b).

AFT Pharmaceuticals

“We continued our transformation this quarter to become a more focused medicines company,” Narasimhan said following the release of the results.

“Operationally, we drove solid growth across all financial metrics, strong performance across our key growth brands, and continued Alcon’s strong recovery.”

Alcon net sales went up by 7% at constant currency rates to reach US$1.8 billion (AU$2.39 b), with the growth seen across all product categories. Vision Care sales increased by 5% at constant currency rates, driven by the continued double-digit growth of Dailies Total1.


The company’s share price in 2018
The company’s share price in 2018

Last month Novartis also announced the creation of a smartphone app designed to make it easier to receive data from people participating in eye disease studies. FocalView will allow researchers to track disease progression by collecting real-time, self-reported data directly from consenting patients without the need for them to travel to a doctor.

It’s hoped the new technology will provide researchers with a greater volume of real-world, patient-reported data, and in the process allow for more flexible clinical trial designs.

“Because patients with eye diseases are often not as mobile, FocalView has the potential to offer tremendous benefit for the ophthalmic community and for researchers looking to develop better treatments for these patients,” FocalView medical advisor and Southern California College dean of optometry Dr Mark Bullimore said.

“Collating validated patient-reported outcomes in clinical trial research is no longer a nice-to-have. This kind of data is fast becoming a critical element of research and development, because it offers a better reflection of real-world patient experiences, fosters better patient compliance and provides researchers with richer and more accurate data points.”

FocalView will be tested in a prospective, non-interventional study to evaluate its efficacy and usability in assessing visual function, including measuring visual acuity and contrast sensitivity. It’s currently only available in the US, but Novartis is planning to launch in additional markets in the future.

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