Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG defended a range of flu drugs that have been banned in Italy, while posting virtually flat third quarter profits as new drugs offset patent expirations.

The Basel-based company said Thursday it still had "confidence in the safety and efficacy of its seasonal influenza vaccines Agrippal and Fluad manufactured in Italy."

On Wednesday, Italy's health ministry banned the sale of four Novartis flu drugs for possible side-effects. Switzerland's regulator, Swissmedic, also suspended deliveries of flu vaccines from Novartis as a preventive measure against possible contamination.

On the earnings front, Novartis reported a net profit of $2.48 billion in the July-September quarter, more or less the same as last year's equivalent of $2.49 billion.

But third-quarter net sales fell 7 percent to $13.8 billion from $14.8 billion in the third quarter of last year, hurt by the Sept. 21 loss of the U.S. patent on its blockbuster hypertension drug Diovan, which faces generic competition, and a 13 percent decline in net sales at its Sandoz generic division.

In its earnings statement Thursday, Novartis noted that recent product launches had offset patent expirations such as hypertension drug Diovan, which faces generic competition in the United States.

"Pharmaceuticals had another solid quarter," Chief Executive Joseph Jimenez said in a statement.

He said the results were helped by approvals for Afinitor for treating advanced breast cancer, which the company expects to help push sales of the drug above the $1 billion mark.

Novartis confirmed its outlook for 2012, saying the strong U.S. dollar is expected to cut 3-4 percent from its full-year sales if September's average exchange rates "prevail for the remainder of the year.

Analysts at Zuercher Kantonalbank said sales fell below expectations, but noted the strong potential for growth shown by Novartis' new products, particularly its portfolio of respiratory drugs for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.

Novartis shares were down 0.3 percent at 57.05 Swiss francs ($61.36) in early trading on the Zurich exchange.


Associated Press Writer Frank Jordans contributed to this report from Berlin