UPDATE 2-Novartis wins EU backing for first meningitis B vaccine
* Novartis seeks to sell Bexsero as soon as possible
* Commercial success depends on govts' vaccination plans
* Formal approval follows panel backing last November
ZURICH, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Novartis won European approval for the first vaccine against meningitis B and is seeking to persuade cash-strapped governments to add it to routine vaccination programs to ensure the drug's commercial success.
The Swiss company, Europe's second-largest drugmaker by market value after hometown rival Roche, needs profits from vaccines to help offset its reliance on prescription drugs ahead of a wave of patent expiries.
"Novartis is working with health authorities to provide access to Bexsero as soon as possible," the company said on Tuesday.
There is currently no approved vaccine offering broad protection against "MenB," a type of meningitis caused by bacteria that leads to inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. It can kill within 24 hours.
"We don't expect a rapid ramp-up for Bexsero, since Novartis will need the support of each single E.U. member state to obtain inclusion into the national immunization program and the reimbursement scheme," Kepler Capital Markets analyst Fabian Wenner said.
Analysts expect the European market for Bexsero to be $600 million to $700 million, a far cry from Novartis's top-selling blood pressure drug Diovan, which had sales of $5.7 billion in 2011.
Novartis shares fell in early trading in profit-taking ahead of Wednesday's fourth-quarter earnings report, according to dealers. At midday, the shares were 0.9 percent lower, lagging a flat European healthcare sector.
Bexsero's approval could provide a fillip for Novartis' money-losing vaccines business. Vaccines, a growing market expected to reach $40 billion by 2015 according to the Center for Vaccine Ethics and Policy, are less exposed to the generic competition faced by Diovan.
Kepler repeated its "hold" rating on Novartis shares, saying the company faces a tough year.
"Diovan monotherapy is yet to see generic and multiple generic competition in the U.S., while consensus estimates for the new respiratory franchise are likely too high," Wenner said.
Novartis is seeking to challenge GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK.L> traditional domination of lung drugs by launching products such as QVA149, a treatment against chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Wenner said Novartis had the potential to increase margins in the longer term as it moves towards speciality drugs, such as cancer treatment Tasigna.
Around 10 percent of those who contract meningitis B die, despite appropriate treatment, and up to 20 percent of survivors suffer from serious disabilities such as brain damage and hearing impairment. Infants are at highest risk.
Novartis won a European panel backing for Bexsero in November.