Novartis has posted a strong set of financials for the first quarter, boosted by strong sales of swine flu vaccines and its newer drugs.

Net profits shot up to $2.95 billion, an increase of 41% (constant exchange rates), as sales rose 18% to $12.13 billion. Pharmaceutical turnover climbed 7% to $7.29 billion.

Novartis’ biggest-seller was the blood pressure lowerer Diovan (valsartan), though sales dipped 1% to $1.44 billion, while revenue from Glivec/Gleevec (imatinib), for chronic myeloid leukaemia and gastrointestinal stromal tumours, were up 8% to $1.03 billion. Femara (letrozole), for women with hormone-sensitive breast cancer, climbed 15% to $344 million and Zometa (zoledronic acid) for cancer complications brought in $375 million, up 5%. Turnover of the acromegaly therapy Sandostatin (ocreotide) rose 14% to $310 million.

As for Novartis’ newer products, the cardiovascular drug Exforge (amlodipine plus valsartan) brought in $204 million, up 42%, while Exjade (deferasirox), the first once-daily oral therapy for treating patients with iron overload, was up 39% to $179 million. Lucentis (ranibizumab) for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration shot up 43% to $364 million, while Reclast/Aclasta (zoledronic acid) for osteoporosis climbed 41% to $123 million.

The figures were also boosted by the contribution of the vaccines and diagnostics unit, where revenues soared 436% to $1.36 billion. Some $1.10 billion of that came from deliveries of the company’s influenza A (H1N1) vaccine.

Chief executive Joe Jimenez said that the growing contributions from products launched since 2007 “are rejuvenating our portfolio and are the result of our commitment to innovation and successful R&D investments”. He added that “we are intensifying productivity efforts to improve profitability as well as to enable continued investments in drug discovery and expansion into new markets”.

Mr Jimenez went on to say that the firm is preparing for the integration of eye care specialist Alcon, but declined to give an update on the proposed deal which has seen minority shareholders at the latter reject Novartis’ offer.

He also confirmed that the Swiss major is reorganising its operations in the USA. Some 20% of its US headquarters staff, representing around 380 jobs, will be eliminated.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mr Jimenez said the cuts will lead to savings of around $56 million per year starting in 2011. He added that four new business units, each focused on a specific therapy area, will be set up across the Atlantic - primary care, multiple sclerosis, respiratory disease and neuroscience. Novartis already operates a cancer division there.