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Swiss drug maker Novartis reports 18 pct drop in first-quarter earnings to $2.33 billion

GENEVA – Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis AG reported an 18 per cent drop in earnings for the first quarter Tuesday, citing strong competition in the generic drugs market and manufacturing problems at a plant in the United States.

Net profit fell to $2.33 billion from $2.82 billion in the same period last year, while sales dipped 2 per cent to $13.74 billion, much as analysts had predicted.

Novartis shares were down 1.3 per cent at 50.25 Swiss francs ($55.04) on the Zurich exchange by midday.

“We expected a challenging quarter in Q1, and we delivered in line with our expectations,” Chief Executive Joe Jimenez told reporters in a conference call.

Jimenez said the company would slowly restart production at the plant in Lincoln, Nebraska, that was halted last year after inspection reports found possible contamination of blood pressure drugs. The suspension cost Novartis some $200 million in the quarter.

The Basel-based company’s generics unit Sandoz also suffered production problems, as well as stiff competition that resulted in sales dropping 10 per cent to $2.12 billion in the first three months.

Novartis said it expects full-year profits to come in below 2011.

Jimenez said nine drugs are on track for annual sales of over $1 billion. They include diabetes medication Galvus, Tasigna for leukemia and Lucentis, a treatment for age-related macular degeneration.

Multiple sclerosis pill Gilenya is also expected to achieve what the company calls ‘blockbuster’ status despite recently coming under scrutiny for possibly causing heart problems in patients with existing cardiac conditions.

Novartis said last week that it was updating the labeling for Gilenya to warn patients.

On Monday, the company announced it was planning to build a $550-million production site in Switzerland, to be completed by 2016.