Novartis CEO says Covid-related doctor visit delays likely impacting cancer diagnosis rates

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The health-care system is still seeing lower rates of diagnoses for certain conditions after the coronavirus pandemic kept non-Covid patients away from the hospital early on, Novartis CEO Vasant Narasimhan told CNBC on Wednesday.

"I think the signals that were sent that ultimately asked patients to stay away from the emergency room, stay away from hospitals, sent a very powerful message to patients not to get the care that they needed," Narasimhan said on "Closing Bell." "It may have been appropriate given the public health emergency, but over time what that does is it creates a significant need for better treatments for these patients."

Narasimhan, who joined Novartis in 2005, said that while trends are positive, lower rates of diagnoses in areas such as cardiovascular disease and oncology remain. For the latter, he said diagnoses are still 30% to 40% lower than pre-Covid-19 levels. Novartis makes cancer treatments.

Nearly 1 in 3 Americans between the ages of 50 and 80 delayed an in-person medical visit last year due to worries about exposure to Covid, according to a poll from the National Poll on Healthy Aging based at the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. The poll, taken in January, found that 24% of people with cancer and 30% of people with heart conditions had delayed at least one in-person visit.

"Cancer patients that are diagnosed later tend to have worse outcomes, similarly for cardiovascular disease patients that don't get the therapies that they need," Narasimhan said. "That in turn creates more burden on the health-care systems over time."

As Covid cases increase in the U.S. and around the world due to the highly transmissible delta variant, Narasimhan hopes lessons from the early stages of the health crisis have been learned. "I think it's critical now, this time around, we ensure patients can maintain their care even as the pandemic ebbs and flows over the coming months," he said.

"We remain optimistic that even as we go through various waves of Covid that the health-care systems have learned that we need to maintain care for noncommunicable diseases, other chronic diseases," he added." "Otherwise in effect we create another epidemic, a syndemic so to speak, of these other diseases."

On Wednesday, Novartis beat analyst expectations for second-quarter revenue and earnings. Narasimhan said the Swiss drugmaker witnessed a resurgence in demand across many therapeutic areas, and noted the company had 9% growth in sales and 13% growth in operating income. 

Novartis is currently involved in manufacturing the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccines, and is assisting CureVac in making vaccines, as well. Novartis also produces monoclonal antibodies to treat Covid for partner companies," Narasimhan said. "We're doing a lot, but also ready to do more if needed."

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