UPDATED: U.K. health secretary asks Novartis CEO for Bexsero price cut

When a U.K. advisory committee reversed its earlier guidance and recommended the country's National Health Service add Novartis' ($NVS) meningitis B vaccine Bexsero to its national immunization program, it did so on condition that the NHS secure a "cost-effective price" for the jab. And now, it seems the country and the Swiss company may have different ideas of what that price should be.

U.K. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt

As the Financial Times reports, Jeremy Hunt, the U.K.'s health secretary, has appealed to Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez to drop the list price on Bexsero, Europe's only approved vaccine for the potentially deadly B serogroup. The letter precedes negotiations set to take place between the NHS and Novartis over the shot's list price, which currently stands at £300 ($504) for a four-dose course.

"I cannot justify purchasing this vaccine at a price above which it would be demonstrably cost-effective," Hunt wrote in a letter seen by the FT, citing his duty to make difficult decisions on resource allocation. Doing so would be "irresponsible and divert funding away from other, more cost-effective, health interventions and would therefore be to the detriment of the overall health of the population," he said.

While Andrin Oswald, Novartis' head of vaccines, told the paper the company was willing to work with the U.K.'s government to make Bexsero available as quickly as possible, he also said Novartis believes the vaccine is cost-effective at its current price given "the tremendous positive impact Bexsero can have in preventing the most common cause of child mortality in the U.K."

Many a company has lamented the U.K.'s pricing moves; drugmakers in particular have lashed out against watchdog NICE, which often forces them to lower their prices on pharmaceuticals in order to snag its recommendation. Novartis' flailing vaccines division, now on its way to GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) thanks to a $7.1 billion deal expected to close next year, could particularly use a break. The company has long pegged 2014 as the year Bexsero would start churning out meaningful sales, providing a much-needed lift to a unit that delivered a $165 million operating loss last year.

The NHS may be under some pressure of its own, however. As The Independent noted last month, political pressure has mounted on the NHS to make the vaccine available for all parents, rather than only those who can afford to pay for it privately; Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly warned Hunt personally of the political damage that rejecting Bexsero could bring.

- read the FT story (sub. req.)
- here's more from The Independent

Editor's note: This story has been updated with news on the sale of Novartis' vaccines unit to GlaxoSmithKline.