GR US

US Probe Finds Greek Doctors, Not Politicians Bribed by Novartis

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(Photo by Eurokinissi/ Yorgos Kontarinis)

ATHENS -- While no evidence has been produced linking 10 political rivals of the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA to taking bribes from the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, an investigation by American claimed the firm paid off Greek doctors to help boost business.

Novartis has faced years of investigations into bribes paid to doctors in Greece and agreed to a $347 million payment deal with U.S. authorities to end it, with the Department of Justice (DOJ) detailing the scheme and attempts to cover it up, said Fierce Pharma.

From 2012-15, Novartis paid doctors to attend medical congresses in Greece and internationally, with per-doctor expenses sometimes exceeding $6,000 per trip, the document said, according to the site.

Novartis paid for airfare, hotels, and congress registration fees, and the company’s policies stated the trips were to provide medical information but the probe asserted it was a cover to “improperly influence” the Greek doctors to prescribe wet age-related macular degeneration drug Lucentis, media reports said.

At the time, Lucentis was “facing real difficulties in the market,” according to minutes from a September 2012 meeting of the Lucentis team obtained by the DOJ. Sales reps were instructed to “make clear” to doctors there would be “serious consequences” for sales declines, the report added.

Doctors “must understand that their participation in (specific congresses in the United States and Europe) will be canceled if sales performance is not improved significantly. No presents anymore,” the minutes reportedly said.

For years, Novartis kept records of doctors most likely to prescribe Lucentis and paid them off through so-called “investments,” financed by paying others less, the investigation said, although the company didn’t admit wrongdoing and no doctors were named.

The scheme brought in at least $71 million in profits, the DOJ investigation said.

The company “falsely recorded the corrupt payments associated with congress sponsorships as legitimate advertising and promotion expenses,” the finding added, the fake records submitted with Novartis’ annual financial reporting to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC.)

The drugmaker agreed to pay the SEC $92.3 million in profits and prejudgment of $20.5 million for reporting violations.

Besides paying doctors to attend conferences, Federal authorities also zeroed in on a Greek postmarketing trial of Novartis' hypertension medicines in which they were paid to take part under the impression it was in return for prescribing the company’s drugs, , according to a trial debrief between employees described in a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA.)

The study was conducted as a “marketing project,” one brand manager said during the debrief. “That’s within quotation marks. Between us.”

Greece’s New Democracy government said it will seek damages from Novartis following the settlement with the US over bribery allegations. Former party leader and ex-premier Antonis Samaras was one of several from the Conservatives accused by SYRIZA with taking money but cleared with no evidence ever produced beyond the word of three secret whistleblowers who said they only overheard it.

The bribery allegations triggered a major political dispute in Greece over the potential involvement of senior politicians from New Democracy and its former coalition partner from the now-defunct PASOK Socialists.

In 2018, Parliament ordered an investigation into the leftist’s rivals, also including Bank of Greece Governor Yannis Stournaras, a former finance chief for New Democracy, who was also cleared and just named to a second term.

Parliament is currently investigating a former deputy justice minister from SYRIZA, Dimitris Papangelopoulos, over allegations that he sought to incriminate political rivals in the Novartis bribery scandal, a claim he has denied all along.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)