Merck & Co. Inc. knew its painkiller Vioxx increased the risk of heart attacks and failed to inform doctors and the public in order to protect profits, an attorney for a man who blames the withdrawn drug for his 2001 heart attack told jurors on Tuesday.
In his closing argument, Christopher Seeger, lead attorney for the plaintiff in the second Vioxx case to go to trial, accused Merck of concealing evidence that the drug was associated with a rate of heart attacks five times higher than for from another common pain reliever, naproxen.
The jury began deliberating on Tuesday afternoon after receiving instructions from the judge.
Merck had said it believed naproxen had heart protective qualities which accounted for the difference in heart attacks seen with Vioxx in a study conducted years before the one that led Merck to pull the Vioxx from the market last year.
Seeger, in closing arguments lasting almost two and a half hours, rejected claims by the company that Vioxx did not cause the rupture of plaque in a coronary artery of his client, 60-year-old postal worker Frederick Humeston, that triggered the heart attack.
“This drug caused the plaque to rupture,” Seeger told the nine-member jury. Using an animated slide of a coronary artery to illustrate his point, he argued that the drug inhibits the formation of prostacyclin—a substance that prevents the formation of blood clots—which in turn lead to heart attacks.
Seeger accused Merck of “speculating” that naproxen prevented heart attacks, rather than testing further to see if Vioxx was causing them.
“When you have the evidence, you have to test it, and you test it before you put a single pill into a human,” Seeger said.
Seeger said safety considerations were overwhelmed by the desire for profits and the company’s need for a major commercial success.
Vioxx had annual revenue of $2.5 billion before it was pulled from the market after a study last year showed long-term use doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
“Merck calculated cardiovascular warnings would cost the company 50 percent of its profits through 2006,” Seeger said, referring to labeling on the drug the company declined to provide.
Seeger also accused Merck of consumer fraud in its aggressive promotion of Vioxx.
Merck’s lead attorney, in her closing argument on Monday, said Humeston’s heart attack was caused by work-related stress and other risk factors.
Dianne Sullivan told the jury that he did not take the drug for a long enough time for increased heart risks to take effect, and that no study had linked Vioxx to plaque ruptures.
The case is being keenly watched as an indicator of what Merck might be up against as it faces more than 6,500 lawsuits from former Vioxx users who claimed to have been harmed by the drug.
Merck is sorely in need of a victory after the first Vioxx trial in Texas in which a jury in August found Merck liable for the death of a 59-year-old Vioxx user and awarded his widow $253 million in damages.
Merck said it will appeal that verdict and has vowed to defend each suit.