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Novartis CEO warns finding a coronavirus vaccine will take over a year

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The chief executive of Novartis believes it will take at least 12 months to find a new vaccine to treat the coronavirus, with the fast-spreading nature of the outbreak a threat that must be taken “really seriously.”

China’s National Health Commission confirmed Wednesday that the coronavirus had infected 5,974 people, with 132 deaths and 103 cured.

The virus, which was first discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has spread to other major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Macao and Hong Kong.

Multiple cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, France and the United States.

“The reality is, it will take over a year in my expectation to really find a new vaccine for this so, we need to really use epidemiological controls to really get this situation in a better place,” Vas Narasimhan, CEO of Novartis, told CNBC’s Julianna Tatelbaum in Basel, Switzerland on Wednesday.

The number of coronavirus cases in China has already surpassed that of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, with market participants increasingly concerned about the severity of its economic impact.

Governments must maintain ‘high levels of preparedness’

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that usually infect animals but can sometimes evolve and spread to humans.

Most of those that have died as a result of the coronavirus have had underlying health conditions — such as hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular disease — that weakened their immune systems, according to World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus.

The WHO declined at two emergency meetings last week to declare the coronavirus a global health emergency, but the United Nations health agency has said that it is an emergency in China.

The White House has told airline executives it is considering suspending flights from China to the U.S., as the escalating outbreak continues to spread to thousands of people across the world, people familiar with the matter told CNBC.

Germany, Cambodia and Sri Lanka all reportedly confirmed their first cases of the virus on Monday.

When asked whether the pharma industry could do more to be better prepared for future virus outbreaks, Narasimhan replied: “One of the challenges is when these epidemics happen, or these situations happen, there is a lot of interest and there is a lot activity but then we go back to a place where they are not happening anymore and everyone kind of loses interest and the investment then flows out.”

“So, the question is: How do you keep the investment in place in the troughs of interest in pandemics and these kinds of outbreaks? That’s a challenge.”

“I continue to believe governments need to maintain high levels of preparedness, regardless of whether we have one of these outbreaks or not,” Narasimhan said.

Novartis reported fourth-quarter net income rose 13% in constant currencies on Wednesday. Shares of the Swiss-listed stock rose almost 1% during early morning deals.



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