Novartis manufacturing agreement cited in Syria controversy

Novartis has found itself caught up in a controversy about ingredients shipped to Syria that critics say could have been used to make sarin gas. 

The report from Swiss media focused on German chemical distributor Brenntag, which in 2014 sold diethylamine and isopropanol to Syrian drugmaker Mediterranean Pharmaceutical Industries (MPI), CNBC reported.

Three non-governmental organizations that work in Syria had complained to authorities the ingredients could also have been used to make chemical weapons. But Brenntag said the ingredients were just for the pharma products and that it followed all appropriate laws and regulations. 

While Syria has denied using chemical weapons, NGOs have reported their use in the war there. 

Novartis has been tied in because MPI had a contract manufacturing agreement with the company to produce products such as pain relief skin gel Voltaren. 

In an emailed statement, a Novartis spokesperson said Wednesday that the company has an existing agreement with Syrian contract manufacturer Mediterranean Pharmaceutical Industries to produce certain oncology and other drugs for the Syrian market. 

In 2014, what was then Novartis Consumer Health also had an agreement with MPI to make OTC products. Novartis supplied the active ingredients for MPI to produce Voltaren Emulgel, which it said was done according to all the required laws and regulations. 

"Under this agreement, which pre-dates the Syrian Civil War, Novartis Consumer Health supplied only the active pharmaceutical ingredients in compliance with applicable sanction laws. It was the responsibility of MPI to obtain the necessary adjuvants required for production (like e.g. isopropanol or diethylamine) itself directly from a third party supplier. Novartis exported neither isopropanol nor diethylamine to Syria at that time nor does it do so currently," the drugmaker said. 

Novartis Consumer Health was divested to GlaxoSmithKline in 2015. 

Novartis said that last year it was asked by Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs to obtain the manufacturing documents from MPI showing that the isopropanol had been used to produce Voltaren Emulgel.

"Our only role was in the spirit of offering our good services to act as intermediary and to pass on the obtained documents from MPI to SECO for their assessment," it said.