Novartis dismissed the top two scientists at its gene therapy division shortly after CEO Vas Narasimhan learned of internal data falsification that has since snowballed into a damaging scandal, a person familiar with the situation said Wednesday.
The company previously said it was “in the process of exiting” scientists who were responsible for the scandal but did not identify them. In a statement on Wednesday, Novartis said that it had appointed a new chief scientific officer and that other scientists, Brian and Allan Kaspar, “have not been not been involved in any operations at AveXis since early May 2019,” without elaborating.
The person familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the departure of the Kaspars, who are brothers, was connected to the disclosure of data manipulation related to the gene therapy Zolgensma.
Zolgensma won Food and Drug Administration approval on May 24, but Novartis did not inform regulators of the data manipulation until June 28.
The news will likely only amplify questions as to why Novartis delayed notifying the FDA of concerns. The company has said that it was waiting on results from an internal investigation, but Novartis apparently knew enough about the issue to fire the Kaspars more than a month before informing regulators.
Brian and Allan Kaspar were the chief scientific officer and vice president at Avexis, respectively. Novartis purchased Avexis for $8.7 billion last year. Brian Kaspar, a co-founder, made $383 million off of his stock holdings in the company through the deal.
The Zolgensma scandal came to light last week when the FDA admonished Novartis for its behavior and threatened “civil or criminal penalties” related to the issue. Narasimhan defended the company’s decision and said “everyone in our organization can stand proud that we tried to do the right things in this instance.” Narasimhan described the data falsification as “an isolated incident.” Novartis has said that it is it’s standard procedure to investigate issues before telling the FDA about them.
In the days since, lawmakers have sharply criticized Novartis and demanded details on the internal investigation and the decision of when to tell the FDA.
The manipulated data came from an animal test comparing two versions of Zolgensma, one used in a Phase 1 study and another tested in Phase 3, according to the FDA. Had the agency known about the manipulation, it would have delayed the approval of Zolgensma, according to Dr. Wilson Bryan, the director of the FDA division that reviewed Novartis’s gene therapy.
Both Novartis and the FDA have said that the falsified data have no bearing on the safety or efficacy of the approved version of Zolgensma.
The company announced Wednesday that Page Bouchard, a doctor of veterinary medicine with 27 years of industry experience, will take over both roles. He was most recently the global head of preclinical safety at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research.