Novartis' Alcon unit to investigate Chinese bribery claims

Novartis' Alcon unit said it will investigate allegations published Tuesday in the 21st Century Business Herald that the company diverted funds meant for post-marketing clinical studies in order to bribe doctors in China to boost sales. The eye-care company noted that it "does not tolerate activities that are not in compliance with the laws and regulations in the markets where we operate," adding "when any inappropriate activities are identified, we take swift remedial action."

The newspaper, citing a whistleblower, claimed Alcon used funds meant for "patient experience surveys" on six products, including its ReSTOR and Toric implants, to bribe doctors at more than 200 hospitals. The source alleged that Alcon outsourced the clinical trials to a third-party company, which funnelled payments in the form of "research fees" to doctors for studies that never occurred. The whistleblower suggested that Alcon spent more than 1.4 million yuan ($228,700) on the studies last year, with one doctor receiving 45,000 yuan ($7350) for recruiting 150 patients.

Alcon said the trials were conducted by a "reputable and experienced independent third party," adding that a 2012 internal review of the programme revealed that it "acted in accordance with the appropriate rules and regulations." The 21st Century Business Herald reported in August that Novartis allegedly paid kickbacks to Chinese doctors to secure sales of the cancer drug Sandostatin LAR (octreotide). At the time, company spokesman Eric Althoff indicated that an investigation was under way into the claims, which were made by a former saleswoman.

The allegations follow a probe by authorities in the country into bribery in the pharmaceutical sector, which was expanded last month. Four executives from GlaxoSmithKline were recently detained by Chinese police, with the drugmaker acknowledging that some of its employees may have violated the law. Other companies including Eli Lilly and Sanofi have also come under the spotlight after allegations were detailed in the 21st Century Business Herald.

For more information on sales practices in China, see Inside China's Pharma Sales Force – insights from the frontline.

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