In the absence of sustained investments by government, the cure for epidemics such as Covid-19 becomes a challenge, Novartis global CEO Vasant (Vas) Narasimhan tells ET’s Divya Rajagopal, Vikas Dandekar and Teena Thacker. The economic logic of working on a cure for epidemics doesn’t make sense for drug companies too, as once the disease disappears, the market too disappears.

He shares his insight on India market, the big theme in drug discovery in the coming years, and why drug companies don’t invest in pandemics. Edited excerpts:


How do you assess the growth of India unit of Novartis post the Glivec dispute?


We had great success launching new medicines in India especially our emerging markets brand which allows us to price relative to the income levels in India in a competitive way. Overall as a global company we have 15 launches coming up in India. We have double-digit growth and we lead the country in clinical trials. We see India as a place where we can expand our footprint over time. But we do think there needs to be a sound IP framework, not just for our sector but for all innovation-driven sectors. Ayushman Bharat is a positive step and we should continue to have more and more support framework to introduce new medicines.

Any message to Indian drug firms as most of them are transitioning from generic side to innovative side of the business?

I do think that India needs to have clusters of biotech innovation where universities invest in research labs, venture capitalists are given an environment where they can invest in technologies coming out of these research labs and then there is a capital market environment that allows these companies to then access the capital markets. The US has a very robust system and Europe has pockets of these. Shanghai has done this and India should do the same to enable real novel innovation to happen in this country.

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How you see the current Covid-19 crisis playing up? Are you working on any cure? What led us to this situation?

We are providing our compound library. Compounds could be used as antivirals for screening. That’s the best we can do. We no longer have any vaccine business. The challenge for companieslies in between these outbreaks. In the absence of consistent government funding, the preparedness goes down. When we have one of these outbreaks the expectations are that we need to ramp it up all back again. And then we have many years without anything happening again. For companies, it is very difficult to sustain investments in the original market. The moment of the market is when people are falling ill or people want to be protected. Once the disease disappears, the market disappears. Only way to keep the companies prepared is through investments by the government. The challenge for them is nobody wants to spend anything.

What are the big themes in pharma in coming decade?

I see three trends in the industry. I see couple of shifts, an expansion from small molecules to large molecules drugs to this whole new world of gene therapy, cell therapy, RNA therapy, radiolagen therapy so the new modalities are really maturing. I think we are in an era where these new tech platforms will be fast forwarded to become a significant shifts of medicine.

The second shift is how culture impacts performance. Many companies are realising that the age of hierarchy is really gone. And you need to ‘unboss’ your company.

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Then there is this dramatic shift in healthcare and medicine around data and digital. And the last one is about company’s role in society and broader role that it will play in society. I think we need to have broader stakeholder approach.

You have been often criticised for making your drugs unaffordable. How do you justify the price of drugs such as Zolgesma?

The most expensive drug characterisation is I believe an inaccurate one. Because when you actually look at the price overtime most medicines are given over years or decades. This is a one-time therapy. If you look over 10 years, this medicine will cost half as much as the available therapy. Many rare disease drugs can cost $7-10 million for 10 years…but we don’t call those medicines the most expensive therapy.

In terms of access around the world number one constraint for access in developing countries is having the infrastructure to handle the cell gene therapies. Countries need framework for rare diseases currently for instance we are working with the Indian government to get a framework in place for rare disease treatment.

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graph 18th feb 2





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