U.K. health secretary: Novartis holding government to 'ransom' with Bexsero pricing

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Earlier this month, U.K. politicians asked Prime Minister David Cameron to explain why Novartis' ($NVS) Bexsero, approved as an addition to the country's childhood immunization schedule 8 months back, had yet to be covered by the National Health Service. Now, Cameron has asked Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to do the same--and Hunt is pointing the finger at the Swiss pharma.

U.K. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt

On Wednesday, Hunt's team accused Novartis of "holding the government to ransom," and "seeking to turn a profit"--something he couldn't accept because it would "deny treatments to other patients," The Independent reports. When negotiations began, Bexsero's list price rang up at £300 ($504) for a four-dose course--well above the £3 to £22 range a recent study from The BMJ found would be cost-effective for the government.

But Novartis' head of vaccines, Andrin Oswald, disagrees. The Basel-based drugmaker has "gone to great lengths to support a swift implementation of a vaccination campaign," he said, as quoted by The Independent. And according to the newspaper's sources, that includes offering up the first million doses of Bexsero for free in an effort to "ensure a rapid start to a vaccination campaign for 2014."

Novartis Vaccines head Andrin Oswald

There's plenty of incentive on both sides to negotiate a price for the vaccine quickly, and Cameron has asked for detailed blueprints on just what the government can do to help that happen, The Independent says. Left unvaccinated, 30 U.K. babies per year die of meningitis B, Cotswold MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown told Cameron recently, with 300 "severely maimed."

And in the meantime, Novartis is missing out on revenue opportunities it won't have for much longer: With the close of an April deal with GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Bexsero will be on its way to the British pharma giant early next year.

But despite those factors, official negotiations have dragged on since this summer, and now the paper's sources say talks between the two parties are "deadlocked--stalled." And if the two sides can't work it out, children could go unvaccinated not only during this winter's peak of infection for children, but the 2015 season, as well--when the revenue losses will be Glaxo's problem, assuming the deal closes as expected.

- read the Independent story

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