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Novartis CEO says cannabis not company focus despite Tilray partnership

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan said Tuesday that cannabis is not a priority for the Swiss drugmaker despite its partnership with Canadian marijuana giant Tilray.

Tilray is working with Novartis’ generic drug business Sandoz and supplying non-smokable and non-combustible medical cannabis products where it is legally allowed. As a part of the deal announced in December, Tilray and Sandoz may co-brand certain products as well as develop new ones. It was the first major partnership between a pharmaceutical company and a cannabis business.

But speaking with CNBC’s Jim Cramer from CNBC’s “Healthy Returns” conference in New York City, Narasimhan said cannabis is “not a focus” for the pharma company.

Narasimhan said he is instead trying to shape Novartis into a company that is “uniquely placed” in the health-care system, balancing between more common ailments such as dry-eye disease or migraines and more rare health concerns like gene diseases, which affects 350 million people worldwide.

The Swiss drugmaker is expected this year to launch its gene therapy called Zolgensma for spinal muscular atrophy, a muscle-wasting disease and leading genetic cause of infant mortality, affecting one in every 11,000 live births. The treatment is estimated to boast a price tag between $1.5 million and $5 million.

In his interview Tuesday, Narasimhan said he’s “hopeful” the company will get approval for the gene therapy soon. “We believe in the long run we can bring meaningful innovation … and this can potentially cure kids of a disease,” he added.