By Julie Steenhuysen of Reuters

CHICAGO (Reuters) – As the first federal jury deliberates whether Merck & Co.’s painkiller Vioxx contributed to a Florida man’s death, investors on Friday digested new claims that the battered company withheld key data about the drug’s dangers.

Merck’s shares fell nearly 2 percent to $29.1 1 in New York Stock Exchange trading after the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday claimed Merck deleted information about three heart attacks from a Key Vioxx study submitted for publication.

Merck said it disclosed the events to U.S. regulators in 2000 and publicly in 2001, including in several press releases.

While analysts said the events do not change conclusions of the study, which showed Vioxx carried a higher risk of heart attack than a common painkiller, the negative headlines represent another blow for the stock and are likely to be used as fodder in future cases against Merck.

Citigroup analyst George Grofik, in a research note, said it’s not yet clear whether the federal jury deliberating in Huston has seen news reports of the journal’s allegations.

“While the data is not new, clearly this editorial puts a spotlight on Merck’s conduct and potentially provides plaintiff attorneys with additional fodder,” said Grofik, who maintained his “hold” rating on the stock.

According to the Wall Street Journal, plaintiffs in the trial filed a motion seeking a mistrial, citing the missing data from the study.

The paper reported the judge in the case, Eldon Fallon, said he will take the plaintiffs’ motion under advisement.

Judge Fallon’s staff declined to comment to Reuters on whether a mistrial motion was filed, as did both plaintiff and Merck lawyers.

The clerk of the court could not confirm whether such a motion had been filed.

Bank of America analyst Chris Schott, in a research note, said, the negative publicity “clearly does not help Merck as it works to defend itself against Vioxx litigation.”

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