Novartis CEO: We can rebuild our good name after 'reputational hit' in Japan

Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez

What's going to save Novartis' reputation in Japan? Science, says CEO Joe Jimenez, a week after the government suspended his Japanese unit for failure to report side effects.

In an interview with the Japanese news service Nikkei, Jimenez admitted that Novartis ($NVS) took "a reputational hit" in Japan as a high-profile trial data scandal unfolded. Its brand may be tarnished in the country, but the Swiss drugmaker can regain its good name there, the CEO insists.

"The way that we are going to build our reputation in Japan is through our science," Jimenez told Nikkei. The country's population has "a high level of medical need," he added. "If we focus on bringing new and innovative medicines to Japan, that will improve our reputation."

Jimenez pointed to Novartis' brand-new psoriasis drug Cosentyx, which recently won approval from the U.S. FDA--but was first approved in Japan. The first-in-class anti-inflammatory med, which targets a protein dubbed IL-17A, is set to shake up the U.S. market, thanks to its strong trial data. It can be a big product in Japan, too, Jimenez says.

"[T]here are many patients in Japan that need it," Jimenez said.

Jimenez and his company have significant ground to regain. The Japanese government last week suspended Novartis' operations in the country, putting the company's business there on hold for 15 days as punishment for failing to properly report drug side effects. It's the first time Japan has cracked down on side effects reporting this way--and it's just the latest slap for Novartis' operations there.

Novartis pharma chief David Epstein

Academic researchers retracted studies showing positive results for Novartis' blood pressure drug Diovan in stroke patients, and the company later faced false advertising charges for using that suspect data in its promotional materials. Meanwhile, Novartis sales reps were caught running errands in a leukemia drug trial, throwing that research into doubt. Novartis pharma chief David Epstein has repeatedly apologized for the scandals, and the company cleaned house at the Japan unit, bringing in new managers and putting employees through remedial training.

Still, the Novartis brand has value in Japan, tarnished or not, Jimenez told Nikkei. The Swiss drugmaker has no plans to back away from it. "We will definitely keep using the Novartis brand, partly because Novartis enjoyed a very high reputation before this incident," Jimenez said. "We believe by focusing on the science, we can return to that same high level of reputation with the Novartis name."

- read the Nikkei interview

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