Novartis has posted a healthy set financials for the fourth quarter and revealed that chairman Daniel Vasella will step down to be replaced by Bayer's healthcare chief, and former Novartis executive, Joerg Reinhardt.

First to the figures which show that net profit reached $2.08 billion, up from $1.21 billion in the like, year-earlier period, though the later figure included charges of $900 million. Group sales were flat at $14.83 billion, while pharmaceutical turnover also stayed at pretty much the same level, coming in at $8.28 billion.

Sales of Novartis' blood pressure lowerer Diovan (valsartan) were down 25% (at dollar rates) to $992 million, due to generic competition in Europe. Turnover from Glivec/Gleevec (imatinib), for chronic myeloid leukaemia and gastrointestinal stromal tumours (and now Novartis' best-selling product)fell 5% to $1.18 billion, while the successor to Glivec, Tasigna (nilotinib), also approved for CML, contributed $291 million, up 41%.

Femara (letrozole), for women with hormone-sensitive breast cancer, fell 17% to $111 million, while Zometa (zoledronic acid) for cancer complications decreased 13% to $322 million. Turnover of the acromegaly therapy Sandostatin (ocreotide) rose 4% to $389 million.

The cardiovascular drug Exforge (amlodipine plus valsartan) brought in $361 million, up 12%, while Exjade (deferasirox), for treating patients with iron overload, was up 3% to $229 million. Tekturna/Rasilez (aliskiren) fell 25% to $81 million, hurt by label updates following a clinical trial which raised concerns it was linked to an increased risk of stroke and kidney problems in certain patients.

Galvus now a blockbuster

Better news came from sales of Lucentis (ranibizumab) for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration, which rose 15% to $634 million, while kidney cancer drug Afinitor (everolimus) soared 105% to $273 million, Turnover from Galvus (vildagliptin) climbed 28% to $255 million, and the type 2 diabetes drug is now a blockbuster with annual sales of $1.20 billion. Novartis’ new oral multiple sclerosis drug Gilenya brought in $349 million, up 72%.

Chief executive Joe Jimenez (pictured) said that in 2012, Novartis secured 17 major approvals and "our pipeline is expected to deliver a record number of near-term approvals and filings". He added that "with our strong global commercial capacity we anticipate 14 products to reach blockbuster status by 2017, up from eight in 2012".

Mr Jimenez said that "after our 2013 patent expirations are behind us", group sales are expected to grow of "at least mid-single digits in both 2014 and 2015, with core operating income growing ahead of sales".

However, the most eye-catching news is that Dr Vasella is stepping down  from the board of the Swiss major after 17 years. Dr Reinhardt, who left Novartis for Bayer in 2010 after losing out to Mr Jimenez for the CEO post, is to return as non-executive chairman.

Dr Reinhardt will end his service with Bayer on February 28 and will take up his new post on August 1. Speaking to Bloomberg Television, Mr Jimenez said that "Joerg and I go way back. We’ve worked together. He knows the company well. Between the two of us, with Joerg managing the board and managing governance, and me managing the business and the operation, I think it will be a good relationship".

Bayer veteran Wolfgang Plischke will assume Dr Reinhardt’s responsibilities as head of healthcare until a successor is named.

Meantime, Novartis has announced that European regulators have approved Bexsero to protect all age groups against meningococcal serogroup B (MenB) disease. It is the first vaccine cleared by the European Commission to prevent meningitis B.