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Novartis CEO talks RNA research; big pharma takes jab at drug pricing bill

Top news

* Novartis AG CEO Vas Narasimhan is surveying RNA technologies as a possible new area of research for the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, a move that would expand the matrix of therapies and technologies at the core of his strategy.

While the CEO said his first goal is to build further depth and manufacturing capacity in existing areas of research including gene therapy, cell therapy and radio-ligand therapy — the "gameboard" he designed after taking the top job about 18 months ago — Narasimhan told S&P Global Market Intelligence that he is closely watching the RNA space as research in the field matures.

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* Pharmaceutical executives have little love for the Senate Finance Committee's drug pricing legislation, with Pfizer Inc. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. saying it punishes innovators in the industry. The bill, introduced July 23, was featured prominently during drugmakers' second-quarter earnings calls as analysts grilled executives about potential exposure to the proposed reforms.

The Grassley-Wyden Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 2019, which has advanced to the Senate floor, would lower Medicare beneficiaries' out-of-pocket expenses and cap price increases for Medicare drug benefits at the rate of inflation. If a drugmaker raises prices above the rate of inflation, it would need to issue a rebate.

* Johnson & Johnson said a Kentucky jury rejected claims that its talc-based baby powder contained asbestos and caused a tumor of the tissue called mesothelioma — the sixth victory for the healthcare conglomerate in a string of related cases, CNBC reported. J&J is facing 14,200 lawsuits that claim its baby powder products contain asbestos responsible for causing mesothelioma and ovarian cancer.

On the policy front

* The Trump administration is looking at rolling out in September a healthcare plan that could include insurance coverage for Americans with preexisting conditions, giving more flexibility to states and expanding health savings accounts and additional insurance options, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing people familiar with the discussions. The long-awaited plan is intended to counter the 2020 campaign of some Democrats for a Medicare for All program and is also an effort to reassure voters that the White House is prepared if courts abolish the Affordable Care Act.

* The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services projects that overall Medicare spending for inpatient hospitals will increase in fiscal year 2020 by $3.8 billion, or 3%, according to an Aug. 2 finalized rule. The rule also finalizes regulatory changes that update the hospital wage index, speed up reimbursements for medical device coverage and increase uncompensated care payments. The changes will take effect Oct. 1 and impact about 3,300 inpatient hospital facilities.

* U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged a £1.8 billion cash injection for the National Health Service to upgrade 20 hospitals — a promise Johnson has made during his Brexit campaign, the Financial Times reported. Johnson, who wrote about the new NHS funding on The Sunday Times (London), is expected to formally unveil the program Aug. 5.

* The Philippines is contemplating reintroducing Sanofi's Dengvaxia, a dengue vaccine that stirred up controversy due to related child deaths, Reuters reported. In late 2017, the Philippines halted its Dengvaxia vaccination program after several children with no prior exposure to the mosquito-borne disease died.

Drug and product pipeline

* Roche Holding AG said results from a phase 3 study, dubbed IMvigor130, showed Tecentriq plus platinum-based chemotherapy significantly reduced the risk of disease worsening or death in patients with previously untreated urothelial carcinoma that has either grown outside the organ or has already spread to other parts of the body. Urothelial carcinoma is the most common type of bladder cancer.

* AstraZeneca PLC said the European Commission approved an update to the marketing authorization of Forxiga, or dapagliflozin, to include positive cardiovascular results and renal data from a late-stage study in adults with type 2 diabetes. In the clinical trial, named Declare-Timi 58, Forxiga significantly reduced the likelihood of hospitalization for heart failure in patients with type 2 diabetes.

* Verona Pharma PLC said its dry powder inhaler formulation of ensifentrine improved lung function in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, meeting all of the main and secondary goals of a mid-stage clinical trial.

* Pfizer's rivipansel failed to treat symptoms in certain children who were hospitalized for vaso-occlusive crises — a common, painful complication of sickle cell disease — and required treatment with intravenous opioids for pain management. Sickle cell disease is caused by a mutation in the oxygen-carrying blood component called hemoglobin, resulting in the shortened life span of red blood cells.

* The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Japanese drugmaker Daiichi Sankyo Co. Ltd.'s Turalio as the first treatment for symptomatic tenosynovial giant cell tumor — a rare, usually noncancerous tumor that affects the synovium-lined joints, bursae and tendon sheaths.

* AbbVie Inc. said the European Commission expanded its marketing approval for Mavyret to include patients with hepatitis C who do not respond to treatment and have a scarred liver that still has basic organ functionality.

Operational activity

* Eli Lilly and Co., Sanofi and Novo Nordisk A/S received subpoenas from the New York attorney general's office regarding the pricing and sale of their insulin products. According to the pharma companies' respective filings, the subpoenas, received in July, are part of an inquiry investigating their pricing practices — a subject that garnered national attention when U.S. lawmakers demanded answers for the insulin products' high prices.

* Tokyo-based Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. agreed to partner with Sosei Group Corp. to develop and market drugs that target G protein-coupled receptors — a group of proteins that mediate most human physiological responses to hormones and other stimulants. The partnership will initially focus on developing new treatments for gastrointestinal diseases but could expand to other therapeutic areas.

The day ahead

Early morning futures indicators pointed to a lower opening for the U.S. market.

In Asia, the Hang Seng dropped 2.85% to 26,151.32, while the Nikkei 225 shed 1.74% to 20,720.29.

In Europe, around midday, the FTSE 100 fell 2.18% to 7,245.47, and the Euronext 100 lost 2.19% to 1,028.29.

Click here to read about today's financial markets, setting out the factors driving stocks, bonds and currencies around the world ahead of the New York open.

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