Novartis in more hot water in Italy as officials probe possible pricing fraud

Novartis ($NVS) is already under scrutiny in Italy after authorities there accused it of colluding to protect sales of eye drug Lucentis. But the Swiss pharma's situation in the country may be getting stickier, with authorities scouring its offices there for information on flu vaccine pricing.

Italian police searched Novartis sites in Siena and Origgio as part of a probe into possible fraud linked to the purchase of two flu vaccines by the country's Health Ministry, Bloomberg reported Friday. According to police allegations, Novartis inflated the cost of an additive to the vaccines, multiplying it 6 times over--and costing the country potentially upward of €16 million ($22 million).

The Basel-based drugmaker is cooperating fully with the investigation, it told FiercePharma in a statement. "Novartis is committed to high standards of ethical business conduct and regulatory compliance in all aspects of its work," it said.

Italian authorities have had their eye on Novartis since early this year, when the Italian Competition Authority opened an investigation of the company and its cross-town rival, Roche ($RHHBY). As the antitrust watchdogs alleged, the pair--which is partnered on Lucentis marketing--set up a "cartel" designed to preference the costly drug over Avastin, a Roche cancer drug sometimes repurposed for off-label use in the eye.

And despite the $251 million Italy has already fined the two companies, its government is not stopping there. Italy's Health Ministry is seeking an additional €1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) in damages on claims the drugmakers had a "horizontal agreement to restrict competition," it announced late last month.

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