As a cadre of plaintiffs’ lawyers have portrayed Merck as a greedy and insensitive drugmaker, they have repeatedly made one man the face of the beleaguered company: Ed Scolnick.
Largely unknown beyond the intertwining worlds of pharmaceuticals and medical research, Scolnick is a revered and influential figure to a generation of laboratory sleuths. For 17 years, until his retirement in 2002, he was Merck’s chief scientist.
A Boston native who attended Harvard Medical School and gained prominence at the National Institutes of Health, Scolnick presided over Merck research during a highly productive period of drug discovery. Wall Street analysts often hung on his every word.
Scolnick cast such a long shadow that the Whitehouse Station-based drugmaker last year named a gleaming new multi-million-dollar research lab in Boston after him. In the pharmaceutical industry, that’s the equivalent to being voted into a Hall of Fame.
“He had the broadest knowledge and was able to cover the field better than anyone else,” said Roy Vagelos, the former Merck chief executive who recruited Scolnick. “He was just very accomplished. And it was very important for Merck to have hired him.”
In an Atlantic City courtroom, however, Scolnick is being depicted as the executive whose harshly worded e-mails shaped Merck’s controversial approach to Vioxx, the big-selling painkiller that was withdrawn last year due to links to heart attacks and strokes.
The e-mails revealed he had concerns about Vioxx that contradicted Merck’s public explanations for heart problems. He also called the Food and Drug Administration “devious,” and disparaged agency staffers as “bastards” for wanting strict warnings on the Vioxx label.
Scolnick, who is now director of the Psychiatric Disease Initiative at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., was unavailable to be interviewed, according to a spokeswoman.
In videotaped testimony shown last week, Scolnick looked forlorn and said he “regretted the choice of words” in his earlier e-mails. He also insisted he was later convinced Vioxx didn’t cause heart problems and appeared annoyed at the suggestion he disregarded patient safety.
His e-mails, however, disappointed and puzzled several former colleagues, some of whom asked not to be identified. Although the 64-year-old scientist was known at Merck as impatient and at times intimidating, he was also respected for his intellect and work standards.
“Ed always worked harder than anyone else and could be tough to work for if he didn’t trust you,” said Gene Cordes, a Merck scientist who retired in 1987. “He knew better than to embarrass people in public, but he couldn’t help himself. He was an impatient guy.”
“Now, I never heard Ed use that kind of language. But some of it doesn’t surprise me. It sounds like a guy who’s under a lot of pressure,” he continued. “Merck was not a great place to work toward the end of Ed’s tenure. All those drugs were coming off patent.”
Cordes was referring to 2000 and 2001, when several of Merck’s biggest-selling drugs began facing low-priced generic rivals. The pending loss of revenue meant that Merck—and Scolnick, in particular—had to develop replacements as soon as possible.
The run-up to that period coincided with the development of the painkiller, which Scolnick wrote in a 1998 e-mail to colleagues was “essential to Merck.” He sent the note after reading a report by a Wall Street analyst, who noted Merck needed new blockbusters.
The medicine was approved in 1999 and hailed as a superaspirin. Along with a new AIDS drug, Vioxx was trumpeted as a significant achievement, and contrasted sharply with a deeply embarrassing episode for Scolnick that occurred earlier that year.
That’s when Merck unexpectedly scuttled plans to develop a new pill for depression. The decision was a setback for Scolnick, who told Wall Street analysts in a December 1997 gathering that the drug represented a medical “breakthrough.”
The reversal stunned investors, who were unaccustomed to hearing such pronouncements from Scolnick and even more surprised that an eminent scientist with a reputation for pursuing ironclad data had to backpedal so publicly.
But inside Merck, few were surprised.
“Ed alienated many researchers by becoming more abusive in meetings, playing favorites and making succession choices that didn’t make sense to people,” Eve Slater, a former Merck executive, told Fortune magazine last year. “The result was, people were afraid to tell him where the problems were. There was suddenly this emperor’s- new-clothes mentality.”
Disappointments continued after Scolnick departed. Less than two years after his retirement, two medicines in the last stages of development were unexpectedly discontinued. The failures were left to Scolnick’s successor, Peter Kim, to announce.
More than anything else, though, Scolnick’s legacy may hinge on Vioxx, and the extent to which juries believe accusations that the once-venerable drugmaker placed profit ahead of patient safety.
In an effort that seemed designed to shore up his standing as much as Merck’s defense, Scolnick released a white paper last summer in which he explained his approach to the Vioxx heart-attack controversy. He called it “A Scientific Review.” Some may think of it as Scolnick’s “Last Stand.”
“Nothing has been more important to Merck Research Laboratories or to me than the safety of patients who take our medicines,” Scolnick wrote. “Anyone who has worked with me during my time … knows that to be a fact.”