One year after officials in Greece began investigating Novartis on allegations that the company bribed both doctors and government figures to boost its sales, the country’s leaders are ratcheting up the probe—implicating 10 former ministers in the scandal and ordering one of the Swiss pharma giant’s local managers not to leave the country pending a corruption prosecution.
That news, reported by the Agence France-Presse wire service on Tuesday, accompanied separate local press reports that the case would be submitted to the Greek parliament, which will then decide whether to prosecute the 10 officials for participating in the alleged Novartis bribes. Several former politicians named in the probe were none too happy to be pulled into the scandal, with some griping that they had become targets of slander and bullying.
A spokesman for Novartis said in an emailed statement that the company is aware of reports related to its business practices in Greece and that it continues to cooperate with requests from authorities. "Neither Novartis nor any of our current associates have received an indictment in connection to the case that is being considered by the Greek Parliament," he added.
To recap, Novartis’ woes in Greece started last January when reports emerged that local officials had raided the company’s offices there, and that the Securities and Exchange Commission had also launched an investigation. Executives were questioned and ordered to hand over documents related to allegations of more than 4,000 payments to doctors. The investigations became public after a Novartis executive working in Greece reportedly made suicide threats at an Athens hotel.
The saga became even more of a soap opera last March, when Greece’s chief corruption prosecutor, Eleni Raikou, resigned citing difficulties associated with the Novartis investigation. In her resignation letter, she declared her refusal to be “sacrificed for the sake of the interests of corrupt state officials and high-profile interests in the drugs sector, who … did not hesitate to plan my moral annihilation so that our investigation could be deconstructed.”
Some of the officials pulled into the investigation made their disgust known in the latest round of news stories about the scandal. Former Greek health minister Dimitris Avramopoulos said he was surprised his name was included in the investigation, because he was not involved in pharmaceutical pricing and policy, he told the Athens Macedonian News Agency (AMNA). Former deputy prime minister Evangelos Venizelos was also named, and he reacted by calling his inclusion in the probe “a cheap political diversion,” according to AMNA.
The investigation in Greece over Novartis’ marketing practices has mirrored a similar probe in South Korea. That investigation ended last spring with the pharma company agreeing to pay a small fine and submitting to a sales suspension on three of its drugs, including Alzheimer’s remedy Exelon. Novartis acknowledged missteps in that country that included paying for some doctors to attend overseas conferences. The company also faced pushback in Japan for retracting suspect studies of its blood-pressure drug Diovan and for engaging in improper behavior during a leukemia drug trial.
Last May, Novartis responded to the overseas probes by revising its global compliance and ethics policies. The company set up a compliance unit that doesn’t just oversee ethics policies, but also coaches executives around the world about how to make decisions that comply with local regulations. The company also set out to make its compliance policies easier to understand.
"Wherever Novartis does business we are committed to the same high standards of ethical business conduct and regulatory compliance," the spokesman said. "We take any allegation of misconduct extremely seriously and thoroughly review all reports."