Covid stockpiling of medicines boosts profit at Swiss group Novartis

Company running coronavirus trial on its hydroxychloroquine drug after Donald Trump intervention

Stockpiling of drugs by hospitals and patients worried about being left short during the coronavirus crisis saw sales jump at pharma group Novartis in the first quarter.

Then Swiss company's decades old generic medicine hydroxychloroquine was touted in March by US President Donald Trump as a potential "game-changer" in tackling Covid-19 despite a lack of scientific evidence that it works in treating the virus.

Core net income jumped by a third to $3.55 billion, ahead of forecasts, as sales rose by 13 per cent to $12.3 billion. But chief executive Vas Narasimhan stuck to his existing outlook, saying the rush for supplies would ease as customers' shelves were now well stocked.

“We assume [that in the] second quarter healthcare systems return to normal operations, and with that we can come back to our originally planned performance in 2020,” Mr Narasimhan told reporters on a call. Net income rose 16 per cent to $2.2 billion.


Novartis said operations did not face significant disruptions from the pandemic that has killed 210,000 people worldwide and sickened at least 3.1 million.

Sales from Novartis’s innovative medicines division rose 13 per cent to $9.8 billion, driven by its skin and arthritis drug Cosentyx and a nearly two-thirds revenue jump for heart failure drug Entresto.

Its Sandoz generics unit pushed revenue 11 per cent higher to $2.5 billion, as its biosimilars – copies of biological medicines – muscle in on patent-expired drugs made by rivals, mostly in Europe.

Novartis is running a 440-person trial of hydroxychloroquine in Covid-19 patients. Mr Trump’s advocacy of the generic drug, followed by swift action by US officials to make it available for coronavirus patients, has raised questions about whether political pressure had overridden scientific criteria in the crisis.

Mr Narasimhan, who has labelled hydroxychloroquine as Novartis’s biggest Covid-19 hope, said science is playing catch-up after the pandemic caught the world unaware.

He said drugs being trialled by industry to address Covid-19 had not yet produced adequate data but said he hoped that would change soon.

“Those data vary, based on the dose, based on the setting that the medicine is used, based on the healthcare system -- all the more reason we need properly powered, randomised, controlled, blinded studies,” he said.

“By the summer, we will have that data,” he added.

The Novartis CEO said that, for the company, the impact of coronavirus was greatest on the starting on new clinical studies. – Reuters