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Merck official Briggs Morrison sends an e-mail warning that if the company conducts a proposed trial of the drug Vioxx (see also November 21, 1996), and the subjects do not take aspirin, there will be “more thrombotic events [i.e., more blood clots] and kill [the] drug.” In response, Merck scientist Alise Reicin laments that the company is in a “no-win situation.” She suggests that people with a high risk of cardiovascular problems be excluded from the study so the association between Vioxx and thrombotic events “would not be evident.” (Mathews and Martinez 11/1/2004)
The VIGOR study’s safety panel meets for a third time and learns that as of December 1, 1999, the number of Vioxx patients who have experienced heart problems or have died is twice as high as those taking naproxen. The panelists are shown a chart with two lines—one showing the number of deaths in the Vioxx group; the other, deaths in the naproxen group. The chart shows that since the sixth week of the study, the line representing the Vioxx group has been going up at an increasingly brisk pace, while the naproxen group’s line rises slower and is relatively linear. (National Public Radio 6/8/2006) Some members suggest that diverging lines could be “due to cardioprotective effects of Treatment B,” i.e., that naproxen is somehow reducing the risk of heart problems. (US Food and Drug Administration 2/1/2001, pp. 6 ) The panel’s chairman, Michael Weinblatt, and Merck statistician Deborah Shapiro write a letter to Merck’s Alise Reicin advising that the company develop a plan to study the cardiovascular results before the VIGOR study is completed. When an investigation by NPR learns about this meeting, it asks three experts to comment on the chart and the panel’s decision. All three say that the study should have been called off immediately because the chart clearly showed that the risk of heart problems among those taking Vioxx increased with time. The panel, in a statement to NPR, claims that it did not cancel the study noting that it was not clear to the panelists at the time whether the different rates of heart problems and deaths were a result of Vioxx causing the cardiovascular problems, or naproxen preventing them. But no study has ever proven that naproxen is cardioprotective. (Prakash and Valentine 6/8/2006; National Public Radio 6/8/2006)
In a memo to Merck scientist Alise Reicin, Merck statistician Deborah Shapiro includes a reference to the three Vioxx deaths that occurred during the last month of the VIGOR study (see March 2000). Those three deaths—numbers 18, 19, and 20—were not included in a paper submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine in which Reicin and Shapiro are listed as authors (see May 18, 2000). (Prakash and Valentine 6/8/2006)
David Graham, associate science director for the FDA’s Office of Drug Safety, presents the findings of a study on Vioxx in a poster exhibit at an international medical conference in Bordeaux, France. According to Graham’s research, thousands of Americans have died from taking the drug. In his study, he analyzed data on 1.4 million Kaiser Permanente patients that took Vioxx, Celebrex, or another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSDAID) between 1999 and 2003. According to Graham’s analysis of the data, the risk of having a heart attack or dying from heart problems is 3.2 times higher for Vioxx patients than people who do not use painkillers, and twice as high for those using Celebrex. Based on these figures, Graham estimates that more than 27,000 Americans have had heart attacks or died from sudden cardiac deaths as a result of taking Vioxx instead of Celebrex. In response to Graham’s study, Merck, the maker of Vioxx, issues a statement insisting that its drug is safe. Alise Reicin, vice president of clinical research at Merck, claims that numerous studies comparing the drug to a dummy pill found “no difference in the risk of having a serious cardiovascular event.” FDA spokeswoman Laura Alvey says the FDA has no plans to ban the drug. “Removing the drug from the market is not on the table,” she says. (Johnson 8/26/2004) Prior to the event, FDA officials had pressured him to water down his conclusions (see Mid-August 2004).
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