MB Comment: Merck is a top US vaccine manufacturer. According to OSHA chief David Michaels’ excellent book ‘Doubt is their Product’ – Merck’s pain reliever drug Vioxx killed approximately 40,000 people by causing heart attacks in the four years it was on the market. To put that in perspective – that is almost as many deaths (from a single drug) as the total number of US soldiers killed in the Vietnam war. Chapter 12 of Michaels’ book says that a pre-release study showed a 400% increased heart attack risk for Vioxx (vs. placebo), but Merck flipped the result around and made the ridiculous assertion that the placebo reduced heart attack risk by 80%. ‘Scientists at the FDA estimate that Vioxx caused between 88,000 and 139,000 heart attacks, probably 30-40 percent of them fatal, in the four years the drug was on the market’ (page 148). Do you trust Merck’s vaccines?
Merck, Vioxx & The Legal System: Snigdha Explains
‘The name Vioxx has become synonymous with scandals over drug safety and the harm the episode did to the reputation of the pharmaceutical industry. And in the wake of the 2004 withdrawal of the Merck painkiller, several courtroom trials helped peel back the curtain on the controversy over safety data and what the big drugmaker knew and when it knew it. In a new book, ‘All The Justice Money Can Buy,’ former National Public Radio reporter Snigdha Prakash, who was embedded with a team of plaintiffs’ lawyers for one of those trials, describes legal machinations, strategies and battles that eventually led Merck to reach a $5 billion settlement. Along the way, she encounters a raft of outsized personalities – notably, plaintiff’s lawyer Mark Lanier and expert witness David Egilman – as she opens a window into the behind-the-scenes working of product-liability litigation and what it can mean for the ordinary patient …
Pharmalot: In your view, what was the most compelling take away from this whole episode?
Prakash: I think what really shocked me was the extent of the scientific manipulation. It had never occurred to me, and it’s probably quite naïve. I knew the tobacco industry played with science and I knew about accounting and financial fraud, because I had been a banking reporter. I understood about cooking numbers. But I didn’t understand about manipulating clinical trial data and couldn’t believe a company of Merck’s stature could be doing that. …I turned to epidemiologists and cardiologists and asked all these questions that a reporter asks. All these stupid questions. And I kept coming up against the fact that this very big company was really not treating people and human lives in the way you would expect them to. And you look around at the cultural and social landscape and you see, well, what I learned from covering litigation and trials before that is how hard it is to hold powerful corporate actors to account …
Pharmalot: You said you’ve seen tobacco manipulate science and you’ve covered financial fraud. Why did you think Merck was different somehow?
Prakash: They’re supposed to make drugs that save lives. You go to the doctor for a prescription and put it in your medicine cabinet and take it and hope it will work. You don’t expect a drugmaker to manipulate. I do think it’s naive to have assumed that. Unfortunately, this behavior is much more prevalent than I or most people think. They’re supposed to be the good guys. And Merck, in particular, had such a sterling reputation. Nothing I was particularly familiar with, but it colored the way others viewed the allegations that they downplayed the serious side effects of a very popular drug. I just never thought they would do it. A lot of these people (at Merck) are doctors and take oaths pledging not to harm patients. But they were kind of acting like used car salesman, yet they‘re doctors …
Pharmalot: The Merck point of view doesn’t show up much, other than what you saw in court or documents. I gather Merck was not interested in cooperating.
Prakash: I talked to them after (the trial) and they asked ‘What can we do?’ There were still other trials going on. And I said I‘d love to be embedded with your side and have a picture of how you try these cases. Essentially, I asked for the same kind of access I got on the other side. The pr person laughed and said that’s not going to happen.