On January 27, 2018, a post I did, “This flu season is an epidemic: Some died just 2 days after onset of symptoms,” elicited a torrent of comments from readers critical of Big Pharma, including assertions that drug companies pay doctors to prescribe medications and popularize flu shots.
A reporter for The Guardian just confirmed some of our worst suspicions.
In a Feb. 12, 2018 report, Helena Smith writes that Greece is rocked by an industrial-scale scandal involving senior government officials and physicians accepting bribes from the Swiss drugmaker Novartis. Deputy Justice Minister Dimitris Papangelopoulos calls it “the biggest scandal since the establishment of the Greek state” almost 200 years ago.
Note: Novartis International AG is a multinational pharmaceutical company based in Basel, Switzerland. One of the world’s largest drugmakers by both market capitalization and sales, Novartis manufactures flu vaccines and the drugs clozapine (Clozaril), diclofenac (Voltaren), carbamazepine (Tegretol), valsartan (Diovan), imatinib mesylate (Gleevec/Glivec), ciclosporin (Neoral/Sandimmun), letrozole (Femara), methylphenidate (Ritalin), terbinafine (Lamisil), and others.
According to a report compiled by Greek anti-corruption prosecutors with the help of U.S. authorities, between 2006 to 2015, Novartis bribed politicians to approve overpriced contracts, as well as paid thousands of doctors to boost sales.
The government officials who accepted bribes include:
- Two former prime ministers Antonis Samaras and Panagiotis Pikrammenos.
- Eight former ministers.
- Governor of the Bank of Greece.
- EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos.
According to the Greek government, altogether, the kickbacks exceeded €50m ($61.97 million), at a cost to the Greek public health system of more than €4bn ($4.96 billion).
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has called for a parliamentary investigation, vowing there could be no cover-up: “We will make use of every power afforded by national and international law to recover the money stolen from the Greek people down to the last euro. We will do everything we can to reveal the truth.”
MPs will vote on establishing a committee of inquiry later this month. Only parliament has the power to investigate politicians for alleged infractions during their term in office.
The report’s reliance on three unnamed witnesses – who are currently under government protection – has been especially criticized, and legal experts contend that the claims would not stand up in court. The allegations have been rebutted vehemently by the accused:
- EU commissioner Avramopoulos, accused of purchasing 16 million anti-flu vaccines from Novartis while health minister between 2006 and 2009, demanded that the identity of the witnesses be revealed. He said he is “disgusted” at the fabrications created by “sick minds”.
- Vowing he would take legal action against PM Tsipras, former prime minister Samaras, who is accused of accepting suitcases stuffed with cash, calls the charges politically motivated and “the most ruthless and ridiculous conspiracy theory ever”.
- Former PM Pikrammenos, who headed a caretaker government in May-June 2012, said he had never known anyone at Novartis.
- Former deputy premier and finance minister Evangelos Venizelos denounced the claims as “a cheap political diversion”.
In a statement, Novartis said it was cooperating fully with Greek and US authorities: “We have also been conducting our own internal investigation. We are determined to fully understand the situation and accept responsibility for any actions that fell below our high standards of ethical business conduct. If any wrongdoing is found we will take fast and decisive action and do everything possible to prevent further misconduct.”
Novartis has faced similar investigations in recent years:
- In 2017, South Korea fined the company $48m for offering kickbacks to doctors.
- In April 2013, federal prosecutors filed two lawsuits against Novartis under the False Claims Act for off-label marketing and kickbacks. 27 states, the District of Columbia, and the cities of Chicago and New York joined the lawsuits. In both suits, prosecutors are seeking treble damages (source: Wikipedia):
- The first suit accused Novartis of inducing pharmacies to switch thousands of kidney transplant patients to its immunosuppressant drug Myfortic in exchange for kickbacks disguised as rebates and discounts.
- In the second suit, the Justice Department joined a whistleblower (qui tam) lawsuit brought by a former sales rep over off-label marketing of three drugs: hypertension drugs Lotrel and Valturna, and the diabetes drug, Starlix.