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Novartis to investigate bribery claims at Alcon unit in China

ZURICH/BEIJING (Reuters) - Novartis said on Tuesday it would investigate allegations published in a Chinese newspaper that its eye care unit Alcon bribed doctors.

The 21st Century Business Herald, citing a whistleblower called "Zorro", said that Alcon offered money to doctors in more than 200 Chinese hospitals to push sales of lens implants.

Alcon used a third party research company to conduct bogus trials on the lens, called patient experience surveys, and the doctors were then offered payments in the form of "research fees", the paper said.

"Alcon does not tolerate activities that are not in compliance with the laws and regulations in the markets where we operate," Novartis said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

"Upon learning of any allegations, the company launches an internal investigation. When any inappropriate activities are identified, we take swift remedial action."

Novartis said its Alcon business in China conducted an internal review of its patient experience surveys in 2012, which found that it acted in accordance with the appropriate rules and regulations.

The claims come as China intensifies its investigations into bribery among pharmaceuticals companies, aimed at stamping out corruption, fraud and other anti-competitive practices.

It is the second time in as many months the Swiss drugmaker has faced accusations of bribery by a whistleblower. In August, the same newspaper reported that Novartis bribed doctors to boost drug sales.

Most attention, however, has focused on Britain's GlaxoSmithKline, which has been at the center of serious bribery allegations in China since July, when authorities accused it of using travel agencies as intermediaries to make illegal payments to doctors.

Other foreign drugmakers including Eli Lilly and Sanofi have also come under the spotlight after whistleblowers made accusations to the 21st Century Business Herald.

(Reporting by Caroline Copley in Zurich and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Ben Hirschler)

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