A major data-manipulation scandal has rocked Novartis. Here's everything we learned from a new 59-page letter the Swiss drug giant sent to its regulators.

Business Insider Finance 1 month ago

Scandal has rocked the Swiss drug giant Novartis since the US Food and Drug Administration revealed last month that the company submitted manipulated data on a key drug to the regulator.

Novartis would later blame Brian and Allan Kaspar, brothers who were top execs at its AveXis unit, for the problems. Now, more allegations about the Kaspars are emerging in a 59-page letter from Novartis's AveXis to the FDA, showing a clearer picture of how events unfolded earlier this year.

The letter was part of a response to the FDA after an FDA inspection found potential violations at AveXis's San Diego laboratory. It includes the allegation that the two execs led the data manipulation in question, and that their non-cooperation and denials delayed AveXis's investigation into the matter.

"Such conduct is unacceptable, and the two AveXis senior exeuctives have been terminated," the letter said.

The manipulated data was used to secure approval for Zolgensma, a treatment for spinal muscular atrophy. FDA has said Zolgensma should remain on the market.

A representative for Brian Kaspar said that he had cooperated with the company investigation and denied any wrongdoing, while Allan Kaspar did not immediately return Business Insider's request for comment. The FDA has said it could impose civil or criminal penalties.

The manipulated data was part of a large packet submitted to the FDA and reviewed as part of the drug's approval. The particular issue pertained to data from product testing done in mice, according to the letter and a press release from the FDA last month.

In addition to the conduct itself, the timeline has also come under scrutiny, since Novartis had knowledge of potential data manipulation issues before Zolgensma was approved in May — and only disclosed the problem the next month, in June.

Here's what else we just learned from the letter:

The story begins in mid-March, with mice.

The story begins in mid-March, with mice.
Shutterstock

Back then, an AveXis employee alleged that two senior execs at the company had led manipulation of data on a specific analysis done in mice, according to the letter.

The execs allegedly "altered or instructed others to alter a small amount of raw data" used in the analysis, the letter said.

The letter also reveals more specifics about the data in question.

The letter also reveals more specifics about the data in question.
Novartis's Zolgensma treatment.

According to the letter, the problematic data was mostly related to "the recorded date of death for some of the mice."

Because the issue related to a small amount of product-testing data, the FDA has said the treatment, Zolgensma, should remain on the market.

AveXis then launched an internal investigation in March.

AveXis then launched an internal investigation in March.
Getty Images

The investigation was led by top HR, quality and legal officials, the letter said.

But when they contacted the employee who made the allegations, the person wasn't available until about 12 days later, according to the letter. Novartis got looped in around then, in late March.

In April, AveXis brought in the big guns: an external law firm, hired to conduct what was initially a secret investigation.

In April, AveXis brought in the big guns: an external law firm, hired to conduct what was initially a secret investigation.
Dafydd Owen/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

In the beginning, the two execs weren't told about the internal investigation since they "were still fixtures at AveXis with the potential to influence and impede the investigation," and in the interest of preserving evidence, the letter said.

Later, AveXis said the two execs held up the process, due to their "lack of cooperation and categorical denial" of the allegations.

Later, AveXis said the two execs held up the process, due to their
Shoshy Ciment/Business Insider

Because of that, the company needed "significant resources" to go over thousands of hand-written and electronic records around the life history of mice, comparing those to spreadsheet entries — an estimated 2,000-plus hours of work, AveXis says.

The two execs were put on administrative leave in early May, and then fired in mid-August.

The two execs were put on administrative leave in early May, and then fired in mid-August.
Andrew Winning/Reuters

After this initial investigation, "the two senior AveXis executives alleged to have been responsible could not offer a credible explanation for revisions to and inconsistencies in the data," the letter said.

AveXis outlines changes to FDA.

AveXis outlines changes to FDA.
Jammy Photography / Shutterstock

In the letter, which is dated late August but was released on Tuesday to the public, AveXis then outlines to the FDA a number of changes, including training on data integrity. The company said it plans to link itself more closely to Novartis's existing systems for ensuring that data is accurate.

The company said it hired new compliance workers, and that Novartis will monitor AveXis's policies and procedures more closely.

AveXis said that root causes of the data manipulation issue included "a lack of cultural emphasis on data integrity at the site, [and] a lack of adequate training and real-time data recording."


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