Novartis CEO Aims to Double China Sales on Faster Drug Approvals

(Bloomberg) -- New Novartis AG Chief Executive Officer Vas Narasimhan aims to more than double the pharmaceutical giant’s sales in China over the next five years and gain faster reimbursement for cutting-edge cancer drugs as the country speeds up approvals.

Novartis hopes to win a “couple of” approvals for new medicines in 2018, Narasimhan said in a Bloomberg Television interview in Beijing. That follows agreements in China to pay for eight of its drugs. Talks with the Chinese regulator show the company’s ambition to accelerate the introduction of new technologies, such as CAR-T treatments for cancer.

“We are seeing a material change now in China,” said Narasimhan, a 41-year-old American and 13-year veteran of Novartis who took the reins of the company last month. “One of the things we are still looking for is faster reimbursement for higher-technology medicines.”

Global drugmakers like Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis have benefited from a Chinese regulatory overhaul that has opened the market to a range of breakthrough therapies. That’s provided a much-needed boost to the growth prospects of foreign companies, whose older drugs have come under increasing price pressure.

While it has lagged behind the U.S. and other developed markets on medical innovation, China has said it wants to build homegrown champions in the health-care industry. The race to introduce new drugs in China is intensifying as giants such as Novartis face rapidly growing local competition, even in emerging areas such as CAR-T.

Novartis is including China now in all late-stage trials on the back of regulatory changes that allow the company to get drugs to the market faster, Narasimhan said. The Swiss drugmaker last year filed for approval for 15 new products in China, which now accounts for about $2 billion in annual sales, he said.

China’s fast-aging population, combined with rising incidence of chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes, has made it the world’s second-largest market for medicines after the U.S. The nation spent $122 billion in 2017, a number that is expected to swell to as much as $175 billion in 2022, according to research institute IQVIA.

Novartis’s $475,000 cancer therapy Kymriah, approved in the U.S. last year, is the first of a new class of CAR-T therapies that have been heralded as a breakthrough in treating and potentially curing certain cancers, and involve extracting a patient’s immune cells and modifying them to attack tumors.

In August, Novartis’s Xolair was approved in China for asthma, while heart drug Entresto was launched in the country, according to its full-year report. In China alone, about 1 million patients are eligible to use Entresto, it said.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: James Paton in London at jpaton4@bloomberg.net, Tom Mackenzie in Beijing at tmackenzie5@bloomberg.net, Dong Lyu in Beijing at dlyu3@bloomberg.net, Li Hui in Beijing at hli355@bloomberg.net.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

With assistance from James Paton, Tom Mackenzie, Dong Lyu, Li Hui