Novartis has said it is considering making a counter bid for Swiss vaccines specialist Berna Biotech, already being courted by Dutch biotechnology company Crucell.

The move reinforces Novartis ambitions in the vaccine sector, which have already seen it make a $5.1 billion dollar offer to take full control of Chiron in a deal expected to close next year.

Novartis said it is ‘exploring the benefits’ of buying Berna and combining it with Chiron, saying that the tie-up appears to have a number of positives, including complementary geographic coverage and product ranges. “In addition, a potential acquisition would assure continued Swiss ownership of an increasingly important health-care business with public health responsibilities,” said Novartis in a statement.

While Novartis said it was still in the due-diligence phase of the proceedings, analysts suggested that if an offer is forthcoming, it is likely to be more attractive financially for Berna’s shareholders as it would be a cash offer and not subject to the fluctuations in share prices that could affect Crucell’s bid.

Crucell said in a statement it had been informed of Novartis approach, but reiterated that its all-stock transaction would create a company with ‘world-leading technology’ in the vaccines sector, with marketed products and a strong research pipeline.

Novartis is not alone in trying to build up a strong presence in vaccines. GlaxoSmithKline has also been on the acquisition trail in the sector, snapping up ID Biomedical and Corixa this year as well as boosting vaccine manufacturing capacity. GSK expects the world vaccine market to almost quadruple in size to £17 to £24 billion by 2015.

Drops statin from development

Meanwhile, Novartis has decided to stop the development of NKS104 (pitavastatin), a cholesterol-lowering agent in Phase II for the treatment of elevated total cholesterol, saying that ‘data from recent investigational trials showed the compound was no longer competitive enough for Novartis to invest further resources’.

Novartis’ decision comes ahead of the patent expiry next year of Merck & Co’s Zocor (simvastatin), one of the biggest-selling products in the statin class of cholesterol-lowering agents. Any new statin will have to show a particularly favourable profile to carve out a nice in this increasingly competitive sector. Meanwhile, forthcoming launches of combination products combining a statin and other agents that improve lipid profiles in the blood - such as Merck & Co/Schering-Plough’s Vytorin (simvastatin/ezetimibe) - have also raised the bar for new entrants.

The European rights to this compound were acquired under from Japan’s Kowa in 2001. At the time, Novartis said it though the drug had a superior efficacy profile to other cholesterol-lowering drugs on the market.

The Swiss drugmaker said it intends to seek licensing partners for this compound. The discontinuation of the programme will lead to a $266 million charge in the fourth quarter as Novartis writes off the remaining value of this asset. It has already recorded an impairment of $66 million relating to the product.