Merck-Funded Study Backs It on Vioxx Issue

From Reuters

A report commissioned by Merck & Co.’s board said Wednesday that the drug maker’s top executives did not knowingly put patients at risk in developing and marketing Vioxx, the popular arthritis drug withdrawn after a study showed that it increased heart risks.

The 20-month review of the drug company’s conduct concluded that Merck management “acted with integrity” in the development and marketing of Vioxx, said former Manhattan federal judge John Martin, who led the probe.

The report, on which Merck spent about $21 million, criticized certain Merck promotional activity but generally absolved top management.


“Critics contend that senior officials at Merck knowingly put patients at risk of cardiovascular events rather than jeopardize the profits that Merck generated from the sale of Vioxx,” the report said. “After an exhaustive investigation, we have concluded that there is no basis for such a claim.”

Martin, along with other lawyers and paralegals at Debevoise & Plimpton, spent more than 53,000 hours on the 179-page report, which also included about 1,500 pages of appendixes. They interviewed 115 people, including top company executives, and drew upon testimony in civil and governmental proceedings.

One securities lawyer who isn’t involved in litigation affecting Merck questioned the objectivity of the Merck-sponsored report.

“The conclusion of Merck’s own counsel cannot possibly be surprising,” said Jay Gould, a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. “I don’t know of any firm that wouldn’t do what [Debevoise & Plimpton] did. That’s our job. We’re not paid to be impartial.”

Merck board member William Bowen, who led the special committee reviewing the company’s Vioxx conduct, said the board was reassured by the report’s finding that company management acted responsibly.

“The main question the board wanted answered was: ‘Did the senior people at Merck knowingly put people at risk in ways that they should not have done?’ ” Bowen said. “There is, I would submit, in the Martin report, no evidence to that effect.”

The withdrawal in September 2004 of Vioxx, a $2.5-billion-a-year seller, sent Merck shares tumbling, drew investigations from U.S. authorities and prompted sharp criticism of the Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based pharmaceutical company known for its sterling scientific reputation.

Although its shares have largely rebounded, Merck continues to face federal probes involving Vioxx and more than 14,200 product liability lawsuits. So far, the company and plaintiffs each have four victories.

The report found that no member of Merck management tried to mislead scientists or consumers. It also said there was no support for assertions that Merck propelled Vioxx to market without conducting necessary testing. And it rejected claims that Merck scientists ignored signals that the drug caused heart problems.