Novartis grabs EU committee support for first meningitis B vaccine

Novartis has scored a key endorsement for one of the brightest stars from its vaccines division. The European Union's Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP) backed approval of Bexsero, the Swiss drug giant's ($NVS) meningitis B vaccine that could become the first such shot to hit the market if the European Commission follows the CHMP's advice.

Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez is banking on Bexsero to drive future growth in his company's vaccine unit, Bloomberg reported. And the pharma chief didn't mince words earlier this year about his intention to make changes in the vaccine unit if the division didn't recover from the sales slump that brought the business losses last year. Novartis expanded in vaccines with the buyout of Chiron for more than $5 billion, but the acquisition hasn't lived up to all expectations thus far. Bexsero could help change that perception.

"Novartis has pinned much of its vaccine division's future prospects on the commercial success of Bexsero," Tim Anderson, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, wrote in a Nov. 14 report, as cited by the news service. "Getting approval of Bexsero would naturally be a step in the right direction."

Vaccine players have flocked to the meningitis field. In addition to Novartis, Pfizer ($PFE) is working on a vaccine for meningitis B and is beginning Phase III development of its candidate, a company spokeswoman told FierceBiotech today. The lack of meningitis B vaccines is notable because serogroup B is the main cause of endemic meningitis in the industrialized world, including up to 40% of cases in North America and 80% in parts of Europe, according to the World Health Organization.

With new vaccines against other serogroups, deaths and clinical cases of meningitis are down 90%, according to the WHO. Yet meningitis, which attacks the lining of the brain and spinal cord, threatens mostly infants and kills 8% of patients in Europe, The Associated Press reported.

- here's the EMA's release
- read Bloomberg's article
- and see the AP coverage

UPDATE: Includes most recent status of Pfizer's meningitis vaccine program.

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