Novo extends China employees' holiday amid coronavirus threat, expects manufacturing to start up next week

Biopharma companies aren't just hunting for drugs and vaccines to fight the novel coronavirus. They're tackling the same threats as other companies operating in China and beyond.

For Novo Nordisk, the issue is so far limited to China, CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen said in an interview. After its holiday for the Chinese New Year, Novo Nordisk asked employees in China to stay home for another week to combat the spread of the virus.  

That means Novo doesn’t have sales reps pushing innovative drugs in the field, which could lead to slower growth of new drugs in the short term, Jørgensen said. Overall, Novo didn’t incorporate any impact from the outbreak in its 2020 guidance, but Jørgensen said the company will continue monitoring the situation and update accordingly.

Since the outbreak started in late 2019 and into early 2020, the novel coronavirus has spread to more than 24,000 people worldwide and claimed 490 lives. Several biopharma companies including Regeneron, Gilead Sciences, Johnson & Johnson and many others are working on drugs and vaccines.

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Novo's “main priority is to protect the health of our employees and the public,” head of international operations Maziar Mike Doustdar said on a Wednesday earnings call with analysts. The company’s extended break continues until Monday.

The drugmaker believes it can start manufacturing after the break is over. Still, on the ground in China, hospitals are “geared on trying to solve the coronavirus and chronic disease treatment has become priority number two right now," Doustdar said. Novo doesn't immediately know the overall impact of the outbreak, he added.

Throughout pharma, many companies are adjusting work schedules, keeping plants shut and generally monitoring the threat to their businesses. For instance, Novo’s move follows Sanofi's decision to restrict employees’ travel to and from China, as reported by Reuters. And on Thursday, BMS said it was restricting employee travel to and from the country.

Meanwhile, contract drug developer and manufacturer Lonza also extended its employees’ holiday break, keeping four plants idle. Lonza further implemented a two-week, in-home quarantine on employees who have traveled from China. 

Other drugmakers aren't saying much about their protective moves but do say they're still intent on China as a market. On Merck & Co.'s conference call, Chief Financial Officer Frank Clyburn said that while the company is watching to see how the outbreak unfolds, "nothing has changed in the mid to long-term about our opportunities in China.”