Novartis faces Greek bribery lawsuit as government prepares to seek compensation

After years of investigating and political finger-pointing, the Greek government is still pressing bribery allegations against Novartis and is now promising legal action.

The Greek health ministry is preparing legal paperwork to seek compensation from Novartis for allegedly bribing former government officials and healthcare providers to ensure sales of its medicines in the country.

The government is “taking all measures to hold Novartis accountable and compensate the Greek state for its illegal practices,” the health department said in a statement Friday.

Greece’s renewed legal action against Novartis comes two years after Novartis paid the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission $345 million to settle foreign bribery claims in multiple countries, including Greece.

Meanwhile, Greece’s lawsuit is ready and will be filed in the next few days, Greece’s Minister of Health Thanos Plevris said in an interview with local media outlet Skai.

Novartis “continues to cooperate with the Greek authorities in their ongoing investigation,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. The 2020 resolutions with U.S. authorities resolved investigations under U.S. law, and Novartis “maintains the right to defend itself against any allegations under Greek law,” the spokesperson added.

The lawsuit only concerns allegations already brought up by the U.S. prosecutors. Noting that the U.S. government has collected its own settlement, Plevris suggested Greece is entitled to monetary compensation as well. In addition, the Greek government reserves the right to add more damages, he said.

As part of its U.S. settlement, Novartis admitted that it used medical events and an academic study to bribe healthcare providers to boost prescriptions of its drugs, including eye med Lucentis. The company paid the kickbacks between 2000 and 2010, and between 2012 and 2015.

The Greek investigation surfaced around early 2017 after Novartis whistleblowers reportedly gave the U.S. government documents related to the briberies. Greek prosecutors have also alleged that through briberies, Novartis manipulated drug pricing in a scheme that cost the country about 3 billion euros.

Over subsequent years, the case didn't progress much. Along the way, Greek prosecutors have cleared several politicians allegedly involved in the price-fixing and bribery scandal.

From Novartis’ side, the Swiss pharma said it received summons from the Greek Body of Prosecution of Financial Crime in 2018 and 2020. In 2021, the Greek agency slapped a fine of about $1.2 million on Novartis, which the company said it has appealed.

Novartis previously suffered a reputation crisis related to its marketing activities in different parts of the world. In another deal in 2020, Novartis paid $729 million to settle allegations that it offered kickbacks to doctors through sham speaker events. With that settlement, Novartis agreed to transition its medical education in the U.S. to predominantly digital platforms.

When CEO Vas Narasimhan rose to the top job, he pledged to clean up the company's commercial practice from the ethics and compliance perspective. The company has since updated its employee handbook and incorporated building trust with society into its corporate goal that's tied to executives' compensations.