Novartis reports high Bexsero uptake as it pushes ahead in open market

With Novartis ($NVS) and Pfizer ($PFE) racing for approval in a wide-open meningitis B U.S. market, the Swiss pharma is taking the opportunity to expand its lead elsewhere, where its vaccine, Bexsero, has an expansive patient pool all to itself. And so far, it's going well, Novartis says.

A large-scale vaccination campaign within the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, Canada, has reached 81% of its target population within its first three months, encompassing more than 45,000 infants, young children and adolescents between the ages of 2 months to 20 years, the company announced Tuesday. And those are rates it would like to see replicated elsewhere.

"A high level of uptake through a public vaccination program is critical to achieving community-wide protection against a devastating and unpredictable disease like meningitis B," said Andrin Oswald, head of Novartis Vaccines, said in a statement. "… We are committed to continuing to work with health authorities globally to ensure public access to Bexsero."

But ensuring that access has been a little tricky in the U.K., where health officials have butted heads with Novartis over pricing. Back in April, U.K. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt appealed directly to company CEO Joe Jimenez to drop the price on the jab, claiming buying Bexsero at its current price would be "irresponsible" and would "divert funding away from other, more cost-effective, health interventions."

Novartis Vaccines head Andrin Oswald

Australia's Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee has also rejected Bexsero once already on grounds that it wasn't worth the cost; the move prompted local survivors of the disease to mount pressure on the committee to add the vaccine to the country's national immunization plan.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Bexsero and Pfizer's candidate, rLP2086, are neck-and-neck in their expedited trip down the regulatory pathway. Novartis and Pfizer submitted the shots--each sporting an FDA breakthrough tag--on the same day, and now it will be up to the agency which gets the green light first.

Of course, any competition or pricing pushback Novartis faces now will soon be the problem of GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), which bought up most of Novartis' vaccines business for $7.1 billion back in April. All that will remain of the Basel-based drugmaker's vaccines lineup is its flu offerings, which it is currently looking to unload in a separate deal.

- read the release

Special Report: The top 5 vaccine makers by 2013 revenue - Novartis

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