Jean-Pierre Garnier, the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, the UK's biggest pharmaceuticals firm, has launched a staunch defence of the safety of the company's drugs after a string of health scares.
GSK makes the controversial MMR jab for measles, mumps and rubella, which some scientists have argued may trigger autism, and the company said yesterday that it would be launching another combination vaccine for toddlers later this year.
Mr Garnier said: "MMR is used in 20 countries and there are many studies showing it is a safe solution to a very serious problem. The alternative of not vaccinating children is much worse, and it is surprising there is such strong concern in the UK when we don't see it in other countries."
He said that the concern over MMR would not derail the launch of Infanrix, a vaccine against whooping cough, tetanus and diphtheria, which is one of five new products from GSK due to go on sale this year. It is also seeking European approval for its four-in-one vaccine, MMR-V, which will protect against chicken pox as well.
The company's shares have suffered in recent months from concerns over the safety of Zyban, its anti-smoking drug. There have been 57 deaths where a link to Zyban is suspected, although the UK's Medicines Control Agency, which has been publicising the figures, stresses that no link is proven.
Mr Garnier said Zyban users tended to be unhealthy due to the effects of smoking, and there was no evidence the numbers of deaths were unusually high. "We are all in favour of this being scrutinised all the time, because it is not in our interests to have a product on the market that is not safe or effective."
GSK is also trying to get its Lotronex treatment for irritable bowel syndrome re-approved for limited use in the US. The drug was withdrawn last year after being linked to several deaths. Mr Garnier said the dangers were well understood at the time Lotronex was originally launched and many former users have been lobbying the US authorities for the drug's return.
The company unveiled its results yesterday for 2001, the first year since the merger of Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham. The enlarged group's giant salesforce, which numbers 8,000 in the US and 9,000 in Europe, drove revenues to £20.5bn, up 11 per cent. Pre-tax profits were up 12 per cent to £6.2bn for the year.
The marketing muscle turned Advair, its new asthma drug administered through a disk-shaped inhaler, into one of the most successful drug launches of all time. After less than a year, it has 4 million users and brought in sales of £850m to the end of December, making it GSK's fourth-biggest product.
Mr Garnier recommitted the company to achieving mid-teens percentage earnings growth this year, but warned that could fall to little more than 10 per cent in 2003.
Analysts remain concerned that 2003 will be a difficult year, before GSK's drug pipeline produces new blockbuster products for launch in 2004 and beyond.
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