AstraZeneca hurt by Crestor health scare

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The Independent Online

AstraZeneca, the UK's number two drug maker, said yesterday that a health scare had dented sales of its important new cholesterol medicine and that the world pharmaceutical market was becoming "increasingly challenging".

AstraZeneca, the UK's number two drug maker, said yesterday that a health scare had dented sales of its important new cholesterol medicine and that the world pharmaceutical market was becoming "increasingly challenging".

But the company posted better-than-expected interim results thanks to surging sales of new breast cancer, schizophrenia and asthma drugs.

Sir Tom McKillop, the chief executive, reiterated his faith in Crestor, the cholesterol-lowering pill launched last year, and said he stood by the company's target of taking Crestor sales above 20 per cent of the global market for such drugs, called statins.

The drug brought in $336m (£182m) in the first half of the year, with strong sales in Europe offsetting disappointments in the US, where the company has been fighting a vicious public relations battle with Public Citizen, the consumer protection group backed by presidential hopeful Ralph Nader. Public Citizen wants Crestor banned, saying its side-effects, including potentially fatal muscle wasting, outweigh its benefits.

Sir Tom said: "The principle effect of widespread media coverage and appearances on primetime TV is on individuals who have no knowledge of how data can be misrepresented. Inevitably a small percentage of patients will think they don't want to risk it, but I think that this is a big disservice to medicine and to patients."

A dip in US prescriptions of Crestor at the height of the public clashes has reversed in recent weeks, Sir Tom said.

Crestor is one of a string of new products launched by AstraZeneca in recent years, which contributed to a 5 per cent sales increase, adjusting for currency movements, in the first six months of the year. Products such as Symbicort for asthma, with sales up 37 per cent, Arimidex for breast cancer, up 39 per cent, and the lung cancer treatment Iressa, up 182 per cent, more than made up for the decline in sales of Losec, the ulcer pill which was once AstraZeneca's best seller and which has lost patent protection. Launch marketing costs pushed pre-tax profits down 5 per cent to $2.2bn.

AstraZeneca outperformed a weak FTSE 100 yesterday, closing down 17p at 2,377p. It kept to its full-year guidance, but Sir Tom warned that the outcome was dependent on "big picture elements" rather than internal efforts. And, he said, there is confusion over the outlook for the US prescription market, which has seen an unexplained downturn.

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