Sanofi-Aventis said this morning it managed a 5% increase in product sales in the first quarter of 2006, despite the start of generic competition to four of its products in the USA.

Net income surged 54% to 2.17 billion euros, but was flattered by an exceptional payment of 384 million euros from Pfizer as part of a deal to buy Sanofi-Aventis’ rights to the inhaled insulin drug Exubera. Otherwise, net income would have grown 20%. Cost-cutting also helped boost the bottom line, said the firm.

Sales came in at a little over 7 billion euros, driven once again by the anticlotting drugs Lovenox (enoxaparin) and Plavix (clopidogrel), which climbed 16% to 624 million euros and 21% to 580 million euros, respectively, in the first quarter. Sanofi-Aventis' exclusivity on both these drugs is being challenged by generic manufacturers.

Another big gainer was the insulin analogue Lantus (insulin glargine), up 42% to 382 million euros, helped by new data showing its efficacy in combination with the widely-used oral drug metformin in type 2 diabetes.

Good contributions were also made by Sanofi-Aventis’ vaccines portfolio – with sales up 30% to 512 million euros on the back of strong performances from Menactra for meningitis, the combination paediatric vaccine Adacel and the company’s influenza vaccine range.

On the downside, generic competition to the allergy drug Allegra (fexofenadine) caused its first-quarter sales to plunge 56% to 180 million euros, while the diabetes drug Amaryl (glimepiride) also shed 26% to finish the period on 121 million euros.

Looking ahead to 2006, Sanofi-Aventis said it expects earnings to rise around 10%, held back by costs associated with the forthcoming launches of Plavix in Japan and obesity drug Acomplia (rimonabant).

- Meantime, US generics company Barr Laboratories has said it is challenging Sanofi-Aventis’ US patents on Nasacort AQ nasal spray (triamcinolone acetonide), a drug for allergic rhinitis which had sales of $346 million last year. Sanofi-Aventis filed a lawsuit against Barr on May 2. The generics drugmaker claims to be the first to file for approval of a copycat version of the product.