BASEL - Swiss pharmaceutics maker Novartis said on Wednesday China remains a large growth opportunity despite a drop in its population, as the government spurs efforts to make medicines more widely available.

"If you look at the unmet need in China to treat many chronic diseases, it is significant," Chief Executive Vas Narasimhan told Reuters after the release of the company's 2022 results.

"You have an ageing population and a government now that is willing to improve the speed at which they approve new medicines."

He added that winning a place on China's National Reimbursement Drug List (NRDL) was a ticket to potentially serve the whole population, and Novartis was investing to distribute drugs to not just the largest but also medium-sized Chinese cities.

Data from China's National Bureau of Statistics last month showed that the nation's population fell last year for the first time in six decades, a historic turn that is expected to mark the start of a long period of decline in its citizen numbers.

But Narasimhan said the commercial potential to serve patients that have previously not had access to modern drugs is huge, thanks to a government push to broaden coverage.

"The speed at which they are providing broad access is getting faster - in many cases, much faster than European markets," the CEO said.

He earlier on Wednesday warned that restrictive drug price policies in the company's European home market, where it holds a market-leading position, would discourage investments in drug development there over the longer term.

Chinese authorities also grant only modest prices, but large patient numbers would make up for that, he said.

"Price wise they are in the range of European markets, but they give you the possibility to reach very large volumes of patients," the CEO added.

Novartis in September laid out plans to reach a number three market position in China by 2027, up from fifth place, part of a narrower geographical focus on four national markets, led by the United States, where the company has been lagging global rivals.

(Reporting by Ludwig Burger; Editing by Jan Harvey)