The Greek government has launched an official investigation into pharmaceutical giant Novartis, following the publication of allegations of corruption and bribery in national news media.
NGOs, however, indicate that the reported crimes are not isolated to Greece.
The Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA) reported on Tuesday (3 January) that corruption prosecutors raided the offices of Swiss drug maker Novartis in the Greek capital as part of an ongoing investigation over bribery allegations ordered by Greece’s supreme court.
According to media reports, two executives of Novartis in Greece had given the US government documents indicating that more than 4,000 private and public doctors were bribed in order to promote the company’s products and boost prescriptions.
American prosecutors have been investigating Novartis for over two years.
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According to Kathimerini, the company’s turnover in 2015 in Greece was only 0.35% of global sales of (€341 million), but US law allows Greece to intervene and fine the Swiss company over illegal corporate practices committed in the country.
State broadcaster ERT TV reported on Wednesday (4 January) agents from America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had arrived in Athens to provide assistance.
During the raid, the police confiscated computer hard disks and tablets, while prosecutors requested a thorough search to gather electronic data related to the probe.
Syriza lawmaker Marios Katsis warned that the investigation “may result in serious criminal responsibility for a number of persons”.
“There are people who were covering for many years this scandal and have every reason to fear,” he said.
Greek government sources underlined the need to shed light on the case, while Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis promised a “quick and thorough” investigation.
Meanwhile, further questions were raised after a Greek Novartis official, who was interviewed for the case, attempted suicide in a famous hotel in Athens on New Year’s Day.
The 44-year-old Novartis executive was taken in for questioning, and had asked to meet the Head of the Prosecution Against Corruption, Eleni Raikou, who is responsible for the Novartis case.
Contacted by EURACTIV, a Novartis spokesperson stated that the company was aware of media reports concerning its business practices in Greece and noted that it was actively seeking further information.
“We are fully cooperating with requests from local and foreign authorities […] Novartis is committed to the highest standards of ethical business conduct and regulatory compliance in all aspects of its work and takes any allegation of misconduct extremely seriously,” the company emphasised.
EURACTIV also asked the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) for a comment, but we did not receive a reply in time for this article’s publication.
Novartis currently holds the Presidency of EFPIA.
Not a surprise
For Yannis Natsis, Policy Coordinator at the European Public Health Alliance, the bribery allegations do not come as a surprise and he doubts that this is a practice limited to Greece only.
“Should these be confirmed, they will prove that the pharma industry is once again abusing its excessive power to buy influence and shape patients’ behavior,” he told EURACTIV, stressing that it remains to be seen who was bribed aside from the doctors.
According to Natsis, the alleged bribes must have been “fruitful” for two reasons.
“First, although Greece could be described as a bankrupt country, numerous medicines with exorbitant prices particularly in oncology are still reimbursed whereas that is not the case in other wealthier EU member states,” he said. Doctors in Greece have systematically shied away from criticising the high prices demanded by the industry.
“The above are telling and point to how effective the bribes may have been,” Natsis added.
The Maltese Presidency
Medicines’ affordability and accessibility have been under discussion for the last seventeen months in the EU Council and will also take center stage in Malta’s EU Presidency, which began on 1 January.
EU health ministers took timid steps last June to address the rising price of medicines, recognising that in many cases, market failures prevented drugs from reaching patients in need of treatment (See background).
In a recent interview with EURACTIV, Maltese Health Minister Chris Fearne confirmed that the Council would like to see more transparency in the way that pharmaceutical companies negotiate with the national purchasing authorities.
At the moment, individual member states and national purchasing authorities are more or less not allowed to share the prices they get among themselves.
“I think this is keeping prices high and there is a move even within the different member states to start talking about how we can introduce measures to make negotiations more transparent, something that might bring prices down and therefore make medicines more accessible to patients,” Fearne noted.
In June 2016, EU Health Ministers stressed that patients’ access to effective and affordable essential medicines was endangered by “very high and unsustainable price levels, market withdrawal of products that are out-of-patent, or when new products are not introduced to national markets for business economic strategies and that individual governments have sometimes limited influence in such circumstances”.
Member states have the full competence to decide which medicinal products are reimbursed and at what price, while the European Commission is exclusively responsible for the competition of medicinal products on the EU market.