When the pharmaceutical giant Merck pulled its blockbuster pain medication Vioxx off the market last fall, it was the largest prescription drug recall in history.
The company said it had taken immediate action after new studies had shown that Vioxx doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes in some patients.
Just over a week ago, a jury in Texas found that Merck had concerns that Vioxx could cause cardiovascular problems long before it was pulled off the market. It held Merck liable for the death of a man who took Vioxx, and awarded the family more than $250 million in damages.
Much of the evidence the jury heard was reported last November on 60 Minutes by correspondent Ed Bradley. Today, Merck is facing thousands lawsuits that have been filed on behalf of patients alleging that Vioxx was a prescription for trouble.
When it first hit the market under a barrage of TV commercials, Vioxx was hailed by Merck as a miracle drug. It was one of a new class of drugs called COX-2 inhibitors that could reduce all kinds of pain, especially arthritis, without causing serious gastrointestinal discomfort and bleeding, a risk seen in older drugs like aspirin, Aleve and Advil.
With annual sales of about $2.5 billion, Vioxx was one of the most successful new drugs ever.
It was prescribed to people like 39-year-old Janet Huggins, who had been diagnosed with early-stage rheumatoid arthritis.
According to her medical records, Huggins was in otherwise excellent health. But that was until Sept. 25, 2004, when she died of a sudden heart attack, less than a month after she started taking Vioxx. She was buried the day Merck took Vioxx off the market. Huggins’ husband, Monty, is suing Merck, holding the company responsible for her death.
"The morning of her funeral, I had just gotten dressed and my sister walked in and told me that she had just seen on the news that Vioxx had been pulled from the market. And when she told me that, I can’t explain what hit me," Monty-Muggins says. "I dropped straight to the floor. It was just a shock, because this is a 39-year-old female that’s in good shape and is healthy and she’s got a heart attack."
He says that if the drug had been taken off the market a month earlier, "I believe my wife would be here."
Merck says it believes that many of the deaths being attributed to Vioxx could be explained by any number of other causes. The company insists it has acted responsibly, saying it withdrew Vioxx as soon as it received what it says was surprising data from a clinical trial it was conducting, called the APPROVe (Adenomatous Polyp Prevention on VIOXX) study, designed to determine if Vioxx could prevent colon polyps.
Instead, Merck found something potentially worse: Patients taking Vioxx for longer than 18 months, were twice as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke than those taking a placebo.
Merck declined a request from 60 Minutes for an on-camera interview, but CEO Raymond Gilmartin explained the company’s decision in a news conference Sept. 30, 2004: "We’re taking this action because we believe it best serves the interest of patients. We believe it would have been possible to continue to market Vioxx with labeling that would incorporate these new data. However, given the availability of alternative therapies, and the questions raised by the data, we concluded that a voluntary withdrawal is the responsible course to take."
Merck maintains that the APPROVe study provided the first clear evidence that Vioxx was linked to heart attacks and strokes. But attorney Andy Birchfield is spearheading an all-out legal assault against Merck.
Birchfield met in November 2004 with hundreds of plaintiffs’ lawyers from across the country to coordinate their efforts in lawsuits they planned to file against Merck on behalf of more than 10,000 people who, it’s claimed, were harmed or killed by Vioxx.
"Merck knew, even before this drug went on the market, that there could be significant increase in cardiovascular risk. To say that the APPROVe study was the first indication that they had of a risk is absolutely untrue," Birchfield says. "You know, they had warning sign after warning sign, study after study, that suggested a significant, a substantial increase in risk."
Birchfield says Merck ignored the studies because it needed a blockbuster drug because it had several that were coming off patent and Merck was looking for another big revenue source.
Merck denies that profits would come before patient safety. In 1999, Merck conducted its biggest clinical trial of Vioxx, a study of 8,000 people called the VIGOR (VIOXX Gastrointestinal Outcomes Research) study. It was designed to determine if Vioxx was safer on the stomach than an older pain medication called Naproxen.
While the VIGOR study found that Vioxx caused fewer gastrointestinal side effects than Naproxen, Vioxx users also had a nearly five-fold increase in heart attacks. Merck attributed the increase to what it believed was Naproxen’s ability to protect the heart, not to any problem with Vioxx.
However, an internal Merck e-mail written by the company’s research president in March 2000 (the day he learned about the results of the VlGOR study, and nearly a year after the drug came on the market) said that heart problems "are clearly there." And he said: "It is a shame, but it is a low incidence and it is mechanism-based as we worried it was." "Mechanism-based" refers to the molecular structure of the drug.
Plaintiffs attorneys cite that and other Merck internal memos and e-mails as far back as 1996, which they say show some Merck scientists anticipated a higher rate of heart problems. Merck says those e-mails reflect only hypothetical concerns, and that there was not enough evidence at the time to prove that Vioxx increased the risk of heart problems.
Dr. Eric Topol, chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, was Merck’s first and most persistent critic. In 2001, he conducted a statistical analysis of all the available data about Vioxx. His study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
What did his study – which came out after the VlGOR study – find?
"That study, which looked at all the data available for both the medicines of these COX-2 inhibitors and all other medicines, including aspirin, that were available, showed a very substantial worrying risk of heart attacks and strokes – across the board – from the VlGOR trial and about Vioxx," says Topol.
Topol examined data from a 1998 Merck clinical trial called Study "090", which was never published. Among 978 patients studied, serious cardiovascular events, including heart attack and stroke -were found about six times more often in patients taking Vioxx than in patients taking another arthritis drug or a placebo. Merck says thatstudy was too small and not statistically significant enough to be able to draw any conclusions. But Topol maintains that, combined with the VlGOR trial, it showed that by the year 2000, there was solid evidence that Vioxx was not safe. Merck says Topol’s methodology was flawed and disputed his findings.
"Merck took on any study that questioned the safety of Vioxx, with respect to the heart attacks and strokes. Any study," says Topol.
"But can’t they say on the other hand, ‘OK, there are always dissenters. We’ve got these other studies that say the drug is fine,’?" asks Bradley.
"Whenever you find a problem and you’re thinking maybe it’s not a problem, you want to see if there’s independent replication," says Topol. "So if you have Study ‘OSO’, and you want to discount that somehow, then you have VIGOR. You’ve got two trials now. You have essentially lightning striking twice. That’s independent replication. That’s really serious confirmation. This is unequivocal. This is a problem."
Merck says while it was concerned about the cardiov
ascular risks seen in the VlGOR study, it was not conclusive evidence that Vioxx caused heart attacks. And the company points out that it conducted a number of studies before and after FDA approval, which did not show the heart risk seen in the VIGOR study.
As safety questions about Vioxx continued to be raised in medical journals, Merck continued its $500 million advertising campaign. The company had developed a training document 60 Minutes obtained called "Dodge Ball Vioxx," which instructs Merck sales representatives how to promote the drug to physicians.
The document consists of a 12-page list of obstacles. These are questions a doctor could pose, such as "I am concerned about the cardiovascular effects of Vioxx."
A former Merck sales representative told 60 Minutes how she was trained to answer that question. She asked that 60 Minutes not use her name, and that 60 Minutes alter her appearance and voice.
"We were supposed to tell the physician that Vioxx did not cause cardiovascular events; that instead, in the studies, Naproxen has aspirin-like characteristics which made Naproxen a heart-protecting type of drug where Vioxx did not have that heart-protecting side," she said.
The FDA says there is no conclusive evidence that Naproxen protects the heart. Merck told 60 Minutes the use of the word "dodge" was unfortunate and that the company instructed its sales force to be honest and straightforward about Vioxx.
The former sales representative we spoke to told us she feels the company betrayed her: "I put my reputation on the line. I gave my physicians my word that Vioxx was a safe, effective product and it’s been pulled from the market because it was killing people."
Merck’s marketing campaign didn’t sit well with the FDA, which sent a warning letter to the company in September 2001, saying that sales representatives "have engaged in false or misleading promotional activities," and that the company’s promotional campaign "minimizes the potentially serious cardiovascular findings" about Vioxx.
Janet Woodcock, acting deputy commissioner of the FDA, says her agency took appropriate action based on the Vioxx studies. "Certainly, we were concerned," says Woodcock.
"If you were concerned, you weren’t concerned enough to pull it off the market," says Bradley.
"That’s correct," says Woodcock. "Here we had a new benefit, and I think it’s important to recognize that there are many thousands of deaths every year from the gastrointestinal toxicity of the anti-inflammatory agents.
"On the other hand, we had, as you said, a red flag for clotting, for cardiovascular events. But we didn’t know what it meant. There were other studies that did not show this increase with the ordinary dose of Vioxx, and more study was needed to understand what this meant."
Looking back, was there anything the FDA should have done?
"I think we were on top of the case here," says Woodcock. "And we did what we could to get all the evidence together and keep information flowing."
The FDA says Merck made certain changes, including changing the Vioxx package label in 2002 disclosing cardiovascular risks. But that was ‘more than a year after the FDA asked the company to do so.
The British medical journal The Lancet published a study that concluded, based on an analysis of previous studies, Vioxx should have been "withdrawn several years earlier."
While Merck disputes that finding, Topol says there is a lesson to be learned.
"In trying for now two decades in my career to try to prevent heart attacks and treat heart attacks, to have a medicine that’s causing heart attacks and strokes is something that can’t be tolerated," Topol says. "These are the two biggest, most important killers in our society. And then it’s important that we never have something like this happen again."
Vioxx isn’t the only pain medication to raise safety concerns. In April, the FDA persuaded Pfizer to withdraw its popular drug Bextra from the market and issued a requirement that more than a dozen similar pain drugs (such as Celebrex) carry strong warnings about cardiovascular risks.