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Novartis ups stake in Roche

Basel, Switzerland, Jan. 23 (Agencies): Novartis AG has raised its stake in Roche Holding AG to 32.7 per cent as Daniel Vasella, chief executive officer of Switzerland’s largest drugmaker, increased pressure on his Swiss rival to accept a merger.

Roche said it was informed yesterday that Novartis had raised its stake from the 21.3 per cent the larger company held at the end of 2001. Roche said it has the support of founding families to remain independent.

Vasella has said repeatedly that a linkup with Roche would make sense in a consolidating pharmaceutical industry. A 33.3 per cent stake would trigger an offer to the remaining shareholders in Roche.

Novartis said net income in the fourth quarter rose 6 per cent to 1.71 billion Swiss francs ($ 1.25 billion) from 1.61 billion francs in the year-earlier period. In 2002, pharmaceutical sales rose 4 per cent to 21 billion francs. For the fourth quarter, drug sales rose 1 per cent to 5.3 billion francs.

For 2003, the Swiss drugmaker said it expects both net income and operating income to exceed the level in 2002. The company said a 20 per cent increase in research spending will lead to a decrease in pharmaceutical operating margins this year.

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