Attorney Andy Birchfield Jr. is directing litigation against Merck & Co. by people who alleged that the painkiller caused heart attacks or strokes. Birchfield's firm, Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles of Montgomery, Alabama, has filed 61 suits against Merck and is reviewing thousands of other claims. He had the following reaction to an interview that Merck Chief Executive Officer Raymond Gilmartin gave today to Bloomberg News:
Q. What do you think of Gilmartin's statement that Merck gained its first indication on Sept. 23 that Vioxx posed a cardiovascular risk for patients on placebos?
A. "To say that the first they knew Vioxx had a cardiovascular problem was in September 2004 is clearly belied by the documents and the evidence that we have in this case. Merck was concerned about the potential increase in heart attacks and strokes even before the drug went on the market in May 1999. There were studies that showed that the risk for cardiovascular events occurred much earlier than after 18 months of use. One study said that the risk was present within the first 90 days.''
Q. What do you think of Gilmartin's promise of a vigorous legal defense to lawsuits?
A. "As much as it's unfortunate, it's fully expected. It's unfortunate that they're going to do everything they can to prevent adequate compensation to victims.''
Q. What do you think of Gilmartin's statement that the company did the right thing every step of the way?
A. "That statement is extremely disturbing. Before the drug went on the market, they had clear warning signs expressed by their scientists and their doctors about Vioxx causing an increase in cardiovascular events. After the drug went on the market, they had very clear and strong warning signals. They had warning signals in the Vigor study that showed a two- to five- fold increase in cardiovascular events. They had internal studies, the '090 study in August 2001, they had the Topol and Cleveland Clinic study that also indicated a significant problem and suggested that a study on the cardiovascular events was mandatory. All of those signals went unheeded and Merck continued a very significant marketing campaign, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in direct-to-consumer advertising. Certainly, that is not the course of action of a responsible pharmaceutical company in light of the serious safety concerns.''
Q. If you could depose Gilmartin in civil litigation, how would you approach that?
A. "One of the things that we would certainly do is confront him with the documents that contradict his statements that the first indication of any problem was in September 2004. One of the most disturbing facts that clearly contradicts their position that they acted as a responsible pharmaceutical study was that the week after getting an FDA observational study in August 2004 that showed a 315 percent increase in cardiovascular risk, Merck obtained approval from the FDA to market Vioxx to children. It's disturbing that Merck is proclaiming that it acted as a responsible pharmaceutical company and saying that it acted consistent with its tradition of scientific integrity instead of acknowledging that it made a serious mistake with regard to Vioxx and that is not the way that Merck does business. The fact that Merck is stating that it acted with Vioxx in a way consistent with its scientific integrity in my mind casts doubt on other drugs that Merck has and whether other safety signals have been ignored.''