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US Health Care System

Vioxx

Project: US Health Care System
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A Merck official writes a memo on the question of whether the company should conduct a trial to demonstrate that Vioxx is gentler on the stomach than other painkillers. The memo notes that such a study would likely show that “there is a substantial chance that significantly higher rates” of cardiovascular problems will occur among the patients taking Vioxx. [Wall Street Journal, 11/1/2004; CBS News, 4/28/2005]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Clinical drug studies, Disregard for Public Safety, Vioxx

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.” [Wall Street Journal, 11/1/2004]

Entity Tags: Briggs Morrison, Alise Reicin

Category Tags: Disregard for Public Safety, Manipulation of data, Vioxx

Research done by Dr. Garrett FitzGerald suggests that COX-2 inhibiting drugs, like Vioxx and Celebrex, increase the risk of cardiovascular problems. FitzGerald believes that COX-2 inhibitors block the production of a substance called prostacyclin, which leads to blood vessel constriction and clotting. His research is dismissed by Merck, the maker of Vioxx. Vioxx’s only selling point is that it causes fewer gastrointestinal problems than other pain killers on the market. But according to FitzGerald, the mechanism that makes the drug gentler on the stomach is also responsible for causing the cardiovascular problems. [MSNBC, 10/6/2004] FitzGerald’s research is later published in two studies, one in 1999 and another in 2001. [Associated Press, 6/22/2005]

Entity Tags: Merck, Garrett FitzGerald

Category Tags: Disregard for Public Safety, Vioxx

A Merck clinical trial of Vioxx conducted on 978 patients suggests the drug substantially increases the risk of serious cardiovascular events, including heart attack and stroke. Patients who take Vioxx are six times as likely to suffer heart problems than patients taking an alternative painkiller or a placebo. The study, named Study 090, is never published. Merck later says this is because the sample size was not large enough to provide statistically significant data. [US Food and Drug Administration, 2/1/2001, pp. 31-34 pdf file; Topol, 2004; CBS News, 4/28/2005]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Clinical drug studies, Manipulation of data, Vioxx

Merck submits its New Drug Application (NDA 21-042) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for Vioxx, which is intended to treat acute pain in adults, dysmenorrhea and osteoarthritis. The drug is supposed to cause fewer gastrointestinal problems than painkillers currently on the market. The NDA includes results from clinical studies that involved 5,400 subjects. [US Food and Drug Administration, 2005]

Entity Tags: US Food and Drug Administration, Merck

Category Tags: Vioxx

Merck begins the Vioxx Gastrointestinal Outcomes Research (VIGOR) study, involving more than 8,076 subjects. The study is being carried out by a data and safety monitoring board (DSMB) that has been appointed by Merck. The Food and Drug Administration recommends the use of DSMBs but does not require them, nor does it require that the panels are put together by an independent party. Merck appoints Michael Weinblatt of Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston to lead the study. Weinblatt’s wife owns $73,000 in Merck stock, which according to doctors consulted by an NPR investigation, is enough to potentially influence Weinblatt’s judgment. Furthermore, during the course of the study, all the panel’s meetings will be attended by Merck employee Deborah Shapiro, who is present even during the panel’s private deliberations. She is also the notetaker for the meetings. [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006] The VIGOR study is the largest clinical trial ever performed for the drug. Half the participants is given Vioxx, while the other half is given naproxen. The study is designed to determine whether Vioxx causes fewer digestive problems than naproxen, an older painkiller. The outcome of this study is important to Merck because Vioxx’s expected characteristic of being gentler on the stomach would be the drug’s only selling point since there is no evidence that it is a better painkiller than other drugs. The FDA currently requires Vioxx to have the same warning about gastrointestinal bleeding that is carried on the Naproxen label. [USA Today, 10/12/2004; CBS News, 4/28/2005; National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]

Entity Tags: Michael Weinblatt, Deborah Shapiro, Merck

Category Tags: Clinical drug studies, Vioxx

May 20, 1999: Vioxx Approved by FDA

The Food and Drug Administration approves Vioxx as a treatment for acute pain, dysmenorrhea, and osteoarthritis in adults, making the drug the second Cox-2 inhibitor available by prescription in the United States. [US Food and Drug Administration, 2005]

Entity Tags: US Food and Drug Administration

Category Tags: Vioxx

The VIGOR study’s safety panel has its first meeting. VIGOR, or the Vioxx Gastrointestinal Outcomes Research study, was designed to determine whether Vioxx causes fewer stomach problems than other painkillers on the market (see January 1999). Results as of October 1, 1999 suggest that patients taking Vioxx experience fewer ulcers and less gastrointestinal bleeding than those taking naproxen. [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Vioxx

At the VIGOR safety panel’s second meeting (see also January 1999 and October 3 or 4, 1999), panel members discuss concerns over the “excess deaths and cardiovascular adverse experiences” observed among patients taking Vioxx. [US Food and Drug Administration, 2/1/2001, pp. 5 pdf file] As of November 1, 1999, 79 patients out of the 4,000 taking the drug have experienced serious heart problems or have died, compared with 41 patients taking naproxen. Minutes of the meeting note that “while the trends are disconcerting, the numbers of events are small.” [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Clinical drug studies, Disregard for Public Safety, Vioxx

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 pdf file] 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. [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006; National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]

Entity Tags: Alise Reicin, Michael Weinblatt, Merck, Deborah Shapiro

Category Tags: Clinical drug studies, Disregard for Public Safety, Vioxx

Merck says it does not want to begin developing a plan to analyze the data on the large number of deaths from heart problems that has occurred during a clinical trial for its drug Vioxx (see December 22, 1999 and November 18, 1999). Michael Weinblatt, who is heading the study, sent a request to Merck the month before asking the company to develop such a plan (see December 22, 1999). Merck suggests that they wait and combine the cardiovascular results of this study with the results from other clinical studies for the drug. But Weinblatt is adamant that the company needs to begin analyzing the data immediately, and continues discussing the matter with Merck, which finally agrees to a plan the following month (see Early February 2000). [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006; National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Clinical drug studies, Disregard for Public Safety, Vioxx

Merck finally agrees to analyze the data on deaths that have occurred during the clinical trials for its drug Vioxx (see December 22, 1999 and November 18, 1999). The analysis was requested by Michael Weinblatt, who is leading the Vioxx study (see December 22, 1999). But Merck says it will only analyze the deaths that take place before February 10, one month before the study ends. Any deaths that occur after this “cut-off” date will not be factored into the analysis. [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006; National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Clinical drug studies, Manipulation of data, Vioxx

Merck offers Michael Weinblatt, who is heading a clinical trial (see December 22, 1999 and November 18, 1999) for the company’s drug Vioxx, $5,000 a day to sit on a Merck advisory board for 12 days over the next two years. He accepts the offer and signs the contract a few weeks later on March 6. Merck pays him $15,000 up front. [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006; National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]

Entity Tags: Merck, Michael Weinblatt

Category Tags: Clinical drug studies, Vioxx

The VIGOR study, a clinical trial for the drug Vioxx, comes to an end (see also January 1999). The goal of the study was to determine whether patients taking Vioxx experienced fewer gastrointestinal problems than subjects taking naproxen, another painkiller. The study’s results back Merck’s claim that Vioxx is gentler on the stomach. But it also seems to confirm the suspicions of some Merck scientists that it causes cardiovascular problems (see November 18, 1999 and December 22, 1999). During the course of the 12-month study, 20 of the patients taking Vioxx died, far more than the number of deaths among the group taking naproxen. [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006; National Public Radio, 6/8/2006] Later analyses of the data from the study find that subjects taking Vioxx were five times more likely to suffer a heart attack. [CBS News, 4/28/2005]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Clinical drug studies, Vioxx

Edward Scolnick, head of Merck’s research labs, sends an e-mail to his colleagues noting that Vioxx’s anticipated cardiovascular side effects “are clearly there… It is a shame but it is a low incidence and it is mechanism based as we worried that it was.” [Wall Street Journal, 11/1/2004; HeartWire, 11/1/2004]

Entity Tags: Merck, Edward Scolnick

Category Tags: Disregard for Public Safety, Vioxx

March 27, 2000: VIGOR Study Results Announced

Merck issues a press release announcing the results of the VIGOR study (see March 2000) and saying that the study showed patients taking Vioxx experienced fewer gastrointestinal problems than patients on naproxen. Merck also says that “significantly fewer thromboembolic events were observed in patients taking naproxen.” Merck asserts that this was due to “naproxen’s ability to block platelet aggregation,” [Merck, 3/27/2000] a theory for which there is no conclusive evidence. [New York Times, 5/22/2001]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Vioxx

According to an internal company document, Merck research chief Edward Scolnick discusses possible plans to reformulate Vioxx with the company’s in-house patent counsel. The new Vioxx would contain an anti-clotting agent to reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems. The document indicates that the company’s researchers believe the current Vioxx formula inhibits the production of a substance called prostacyclin which leads to blood vessel constriction and clotting. But Merck was alerted to this problem two years before by scientist Garrett FitzGerald, who had warned the company that all Cox-2 inhibitors would likely have this effect. Merck, eager to get its drug on the market, dismissed his research (see 1998). [Associated Press, 6/22/2005]

Entity Tags: Edward Scolnick, Merck

Category Tags: Vioxx

Merck sends all of its sales representatives a “Cardiovascular Card,” a tri-fold pamphlet on the safety of Vioxx, so they “are well prepared to respond to questions about the cardiovascular effects of Vioxx.” Since the announcement (see March 27, 2000) of the VIGOR study results, physicians have been asking the representatives whether Vioxx causes heart problems. The pamphlet contains a table of data appearing to indicate that patients on Vioxx are 11 times less likely to die than patients on standard anti-inflammatory drugs, and 8 times less likely to die from heart attacks and strokes. Another section displays data showing that Vioxx patients are half as likely to suffer heart attacks as patients who receive a placebo. The risk for patients on other anti-inflammatory drugs appears to be identical. [Merck, 4/28/2000 pdf file] But the pamphlet is based on the combined data of several disparate studies, conducted before the drug’s approval. None of the studies were designed to test the cardiovascular safety of the drug. An FDA medical reviewer later tells the staff of a congressional committee that the relevance of those studies to the question of Vioxx’s effects on the heart is “nonexistent.” Furthermore, the reviewer says it would be “ridiculous” and “scientifically inappropriate” to use the pamphlet as evidence of the drug’s safety. [Office of Representative Henry A. Waxman, 5/5/2005, pp. 16-19 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Merck, VIGOR

Category Tags: Vioxx, Marketing

Merck submits the results of the VIGOR clinical trial for its drug Vioxx to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) for publication. The data include only 17 of the 20 deaths that occurred among patients taking Vioxx (see March 2000). [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006] Data concerning the last three deaths were deleted two days before, according to Dr. Gregory Curfman, executive editor of the journal, who does not discover the missing data until December 2004. “When you hover the cursor over the editing changes, the identity of the editor pops up, and it just says ‘Merck,’” Curfman later tells Forbes magazine. [Forbes, 12/8/2005]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Suppression of data, Vioxx

The authors of a paper on VIGOR, a clinical study on the drug Vioxx, submit two sets of corrections to the New England Journal of Science for the manuscript they submitted in May (see May 18, 2000). They do not correct the omission of three fatal heart attacks that occurred toward the end of the study (see March 2000) after a February 10 “cut-off” date (see Early February 2000). [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]

Category Tags: Fraud, Manipulation of data, Vioxx, Studies-Academic

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). [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]

Entity Tags: Alise Reicin, Deborah Shapiro

Category Tags: Suppression of data, Vioxx

Merck informs the FDA about three fatal heart attacks (deaths 18, 19, and 20) that occurred toward the end of VIGOR, the clinical trial for its drug Vioxx that ended last March (see March 2000). These three deaths were initially left out because they had taken place after a February 10 “cut-off” that had been set at the company’s insistence (see Early February 2000) [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]

Entity Tags: US Food and Drug Administration, Merck

Category Tags: Vioxx

The New England Journal of Medicine publishes the VIGOR paper (see May 18, 2000) summarizing the results of a clinical trial for the drug Vioxx. The paper’s main conclusion is that patients taking the drug experienced fewer gastrointestinal complications than patients taking naproxen, another painkiller. This conclusion is important to Merck, the maker of the drug, because this is Vioxx’s only selling point. There is no evidence that Vioxx is a more effective painkiller than any other drug available on the market. But the paper’s section on “General Safety” is misleading because the authors leave out the deaths of three Vioxx patients (see March 2000). The authors were aware of the fatal heart attacks and had at least two opportunities to correct these omissions (see July 2000-November 2000). Notwithstanding their knowledge of these deaths, the authors say there is no causal relationship between Vioxx and heart problems. [Bombardier et al., 2000; National Public Radio, 6/8/2006] When the Journal learns about the missing deaths, executive editor Dr. Gregory Curfman, demands a correction. He tells Forbes magazine, “I was somewhere between surprised and stunned. They allowed us to publish an article that was just incomplete and inaccurate in some respects and was misleading and may have contributed to the detriment to the public health.” [Forbes, 12/8/2005]

Category Tags: Vioxx

Merck’s sales force develops a flash-card game called “Dodge Ball Vioxx” to help train Merck sales representatives on how to respond to certain questions and concerns that doctors might have about Vioxx. [Daily Journal Extra, 1/31/2005] The game includes a 12-page list of obstacles including some questions concerning the association between Vioxx and heart problems. One of them is, “I am concerned about the cardiovascular effects of Vioxx.” In the summer of 2005, a former Merck sales woman tells CBS 60 Minutes that when faced with that question, the company said representatives should say the drug does not cause heart problems. “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. According to the FDA, there is no evidence that Naproxen has such properties. [CBS News, 4/28/2005]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Manipulation of data, Marketing, Vioxx

Merck files a patent application with the US Patent Office for a drug that would contain a combination of Vioxx and an anti-clotting agent, or thromboxane inhibitor. The new drug would hopefully reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems while preserving Vioxx’s gastrointestinal benefits. Merck never develops the drug. Critics later note that Merck’s interest in this new drug contradicted its assertions that Vioxx was safe for the heart. [Associated Press, 6/22/2005]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Vioxx

The Food and Drug Administration holds an advisory meeting on the VIGOR study, a clinical trial for the drug Vioxx, to assess whether there is a connection between the drug and heart problems. Unlike the VIGOR study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (see November 23, 2000), this group includes heart attacks 18, 19, and 20 (see March 2000) in their analysis. The meeting’s members conclude that there is not enough data to draw a solid conclusion. [US Food and Drug Administration, 3/8/2001; National Public Radio, 6/8/2006] Notwithstanding, they do recommend that physicians be informed that the VIGOR study showed “an excess of cardiovascular events in comparison to naproxen.” [Office of Representative Henry A. Waxman, 5/5/2005, pp. 21 pdf file] On March 7, the agency publishes all of the VIGOR data on its website, as well as its analysis. [US Food and Drug Administration, 3/8/2001]

Entity Tags: US Food and Drug Administration

Category Tags: Vioxx

Fearing increased public concern over the safety of Vioxx, Merck sends its sales representatives a bulletin instructing them in all capital letters: “Do not initiate discussions on the FDA Arthritis Advisory Committee… or the results of the… VIGOR study.” The previous day, an FDA panel (see February 8, 2001) reviewed the results of the VIGOR study and said physicians need to be informed that Vioxx appears to cause “an excess of cardiovascular events in comparison to naproxen.” The Merck bulletin provides a list of responses that its representatives are authorized to use in addressing physicians’ concerns. It emphasizes that these are the only responses they are allowed to use. If doctors ask about Vioxx’s effects on the heart, sales persons should say, “Because the study is not in the label, I cannot discuss the study with you.” However, as a report by Henry A. Waxman notes, drug company representatives are permitted by FDA regulations to discuss safety concerns even when those concerns are not on the label. The sales persons are also advised to tell physicians to submit their questions in writing to Merck’s medical services department. Merck says reps can also show the physicians the Cardiovascular Card, a pamphlet consisting of data that appears to show that Vioxx is safe (see April 28, 2000). The bulletin indicates that sales reps are not supposed to leave the pamphlet with the doctor. [Merck, 2/9/2001 pdf file; Office of Representative Henry A. Waxman, 5/5/2005, pp. 22 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Manipulation of data, Marketing, Vioxx

A new Merck training manual instructs company sales representives on how to use reprints of medical journal articles in their sales pitches to doctors. The company has divided the reprints into two categories, “approved” and “background.” The “approved” category includes articles that “provide solid evidence as to why [doctors] should prescribe Merck products for their appropriate patients.” Only these articles can be used or cited by Merck sales people. Background articles, on the other hand, cannot be used or even referenced. Doing so would be “a clear violation of Company Policy,” the document says. If a physician has any questions about studies not in the “approved” category, the sales representive should refer the individual to Merck’s medical services department. [Merck, 3/2001 pdf file; Office of Representative Henry A. Waxman, 5/5/2005, pp. 12-13 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Marketing, Vioxx

The New York Times reports the results of the VIGOR study (see March 2000), which showed that Vioxx, marketed by Merck, increases the risk of heart attacks four-fold (later studies increase this to five-fold). The Times also reports Merck’s interpretation of the results—that the different number of heart attacks suffered by patients taking Vioxx compared to those using naproxen was due to the heart-protective properties of naproxen. But no studies have been done showing that naproxen prevents heart attacks, says Dr. Maria Lourdes Villalba, an FDA scientist who was interviewed by the newspaper. Another scientist, Dr. M. Michael Wolfe, chief of the gastroenterology section at the Boston University School of Medicine, says people need to know about these risks. “The marketing of these drugs is unbelievable. I’m sure there are many people out there who are taking these drugs that should not be,” he says. Another concern noted is that the very same people who are likely to take the drug—elderly people with arthritis—are the ones with the highest risk of having heart problems. [New York Times, 5/22/2001]

Entity Tags: VIGOR, Merck

Category Tags: Vioxx

The same day the New York Times publishes an article (see May 22, 2001) raising questions about the safety of Vioxx, Merck sends a bulletin to its sales representatives instructing them in capital letters: “Do not initiate discussions on the results of the… VIGOR study, or any of the recent articles in the press on Vioxx.” The bulletin says that if physicians ask any questions about the cardiovascular safety of Vioxx, sales reps should refer to the “Cardiovascular Card” (a marketing pamphlet on the safety of Vioxx, see April 28, 2000), request that Merck’s “Medical Services” staff fax or Fedex additional information to the doctor, or respond appropriately “in accordance with the obstacle-handling guide.” [Merck, 5/22/2001 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Manipulation of data, Marketing, Vioxx

Merck issues a press release titled “Merck Confirms Favorable Cardiovascular Safety Profile of Vioxx” asserting that there is no evidence that patients taking the prescribed dosage levels of Vioxx have an increased risk of having heart problems. It says that the higher number of heart troubles experienced by patients taking Vioxx compared to naproxen during the VIGOR study (see March 2000) was likely because naproxen has similar properties to aspirin, which is known to prevent heart attacks. [Merck, 5/22/2001] The FDA later issues a warning to Merck calling this press release “simply incomprehensible, given the rate of MI and serious cardiovascular events compared to naproxen” (see September 17, 2001). [US Food and Drug Administration, 9/17/2001, pp. 1-2 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Manipulation of data, Marketing, Vioxx

An new analysis of data from the VIGOR study (a clinical trial for Vioxx, see January 1999) along with data from a clinical trial of the drug Celebrex, and two smaller studies, raises concerns that COX-2 inhibitors may cause cardiovascular events. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concludes that “it is mandatory to conduct a trial specifically assessing cardiovascular risk and benefit of these agents.” The authors are cardiologists Debabrata Mukherjee, Steven Nissen, and Eric Topol. [Mukherjee, Nissen, and Topol, 2001; National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]

Entity Tags: Steven Nissen, Eric Topol, Debabrata Mukherjee

Category Tags: Vioxx, Studies-Academic

The Food and Drug Administration faxes a warning letter to Raymond Gilmartin, the CEO of Merck, accusing the company of conducting a deceptive promotional campaign for its drug Vioxx. The eight-page letter, referring mostly to events that took place between June 2000 and June 2001, states: “You have engaged in a promotional campaign for Vioxx that minimizes the potentially serious cardiovascular findings that were observed in the VIOXX Gastrointestinal Outcomes Research (VIGOR) study (see March 2000), and thus, misrepresents the safety profile for VIOXX. Specifically, your promotional campaign discounts the fact that in the VIGOR study, patients on VIOXX were observed to have a four to five fold increase in myocardial infarctions (MIs) compared to patients on the comparator non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), Naprosyn (naproxen).… You assert that Vioxx does not increase the risk of MIs and that the VIGOR finding is consistent with naproxen’s ability to block platelet aggregation like aspirin. That is a possible explanation, but you fail to disclose that your explanation is hypothetical, has not been demonstrated by substantial evidence, and that there is another reasonable explanation, that Vioxx may have pro-thrombotic properties [i.e., cause heart attacks]. You have also engaged in promotional activities that minimize the Vioxx/Coumadin (warfarin) drug interaction, omit important risk information, make unsubstantiated superiority claims against other NSAIDS, and promote Vioxx for unapproved uses and an unapproved dosing regimen.… Your minimizing these potential risks and misrepresenting the safety profile for Vioxx raise significant public health and safety concerns.” The letter also warns the company about a May 2001 press release (see May 22, 2001), which claimed the drug has a “favorable cardiovascular safety profile.” [US Food and Drug Administration, 9/17/2001, pp. 1-2 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Raymond Gilmartin, Merck

Category Tags: Disregard for Public Safety, Manipulation of data, Marketing, Vioxx

Beginning no later than January 2002, Merck provides its sales staff with detailed information on the prescribing habits of individual doctors, or as they like to call them, “customers.” The data—purchased by Merck from an outside company—allows sales representatives to see how many prescriptions each of their customers writes for any given medication. The sales person can see which customers are prescribing large quantities of Merck drugs and which ones aren’t, indicating to the rep which customers need to be worked on the most. Furthermore, each doctor has a “Merck Potential,” which is a “dollar estimate of each prescriber’s total prescribing volume that can realistically be converted to Merck prescriptions.” Bonuses for reps are based on the overall sales and Merck market shares for their respective sales territories. So the more Merck drugs their customers prescribe, the more money they make. [Merck, 1/2002 pdf file; Office of Representative Henry A. Waxman, 5/5/2005, pp. 13-14 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Marketing, Vioxx

A training manual for Merck’s marketing force recommends that sales representatives think of people like Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Tiger Woods, and George Washington when they are faced with a doctor who is a hard sell. “Martin Luther King could have laid low when his home was firebombed,” the manual states, suggesting that like MLK, the Vioxx sales representatives should never back down. [Merck, 1/2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Merck

Category Tags: Marketing, Vioxx

After six months of negotiations, Merck and the FDA finally agree on the text for a warning about Vioxx’s cardiovascular side effects that will be added to the drug’s label. The FDA had wanted to include a clear message that Vioxx increases the risk of heart problems since the current version of the label includes no information about such risks. An excerpt from the FDA’s originally proposed text reads: “VIOXX should be used with caution in patients at risk of developing cardiovascular thrombotic events… . The risk of developing myocardial infarction in the VIGOR study was five-fold higher in patients treated with VIOXX 50 mg (0.5 percent) as compared to patients treated with naproxen (0.1 percent).…” The FDA also wanted to include a graph showing that the risk of heart problems increases with continued exposure to the drug. Merck objected to the FDA’s proposals. It insisted that a description of the cardiovascular risks be included in the “Precaution” section of the label, instead of the more severe “Warning” section, as proposed by the FDA. The company also wanted to include results from several disparate clinical studies that had been conducted prior to the drug’s release. These are the same tests that are cited in the “Cardiovascular Card” that Merck sales people show to doctors (see April 28, 2000). But the FDA objected, telling the company that the studies were “trials of different design, size, and duration, using different doses of VIOXX and different comparators” and therefore did not provide useful data for determining the drug’s cardiovascular risk. The FDA eventually concedes to several of Merck’s requests. The final text of the warning is included in the “Precaution” section of the label, as Merck wanted, and does not include the graph that had been requested by the FDA. The text of the cautionary statement is also watered down. The section summarizing the results of the VIGOR study (see March 2000) and two other studies states: “The significance of the cardiovascular findings from these 3 studies (VIGOR and 2 placebo-controlled studies) is unknown.” [Merck, 2001; US Food and Drug Administration, 1/30/2002 pdf file; US Food and Drug Administration, 2005; Office of Representative Henry A. Waxman, 5/5/2005, pp. 16-19 pdf file]

Entity Tags: US Food and Drug Administration, VIGOR, Merck

Category Tags: Manipulation of data, Vioxx

FDA scientist David Graham has analyzed data on 1.4 million Kaiser Permanente patients who took Vioxx, Celebrex, or another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSDAID) between 1999 and 2003. Based on his findings, Graham believes there have been more than 27,000 heart attacks and sudden cardiac deaths in the US that would not have occurred had those patients been prescribed Celebrex instead of Vioxx. [Washington Post, 10/8/2004] When the FDA reviews a summary of his study, which Graham will present in France on August 25 (see August 25, 2004), his conclusion triggers “an explosive response from the Office of New Drugs.” Graham later tells Congress, “I was pressured to change my conclusions and recommendations, and basically threatened that if I did not change them, I would not be permitted to present the paper at the conference. One Drug Safety manager recommended that I should be barred from presenting the poster at the meeting.” [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file] In an August 12 e-mail, John Jenkins, director of the Office of New Drugs, suggests “watering down” the report’s conclusions because the FDA is “not contemplating” a warning against high-doses of Vioxx. In response, Graham says, “I’ve gone about as far as I can without compromising my deeply-held conclusions about this safety question.” In another e-mail, a different top official expresses concern about how the report might impact Merck. The person writes that the company should be warned beforehand “so they can be prepared for [the] extensive media attention that this will likely provoke.” [Wall Street Journal, 10/8/2004; Washington Post, 10/8/2004]

Entity Tags: John Jenkins, David Graham

Category Tags: Defense of corporate interests, Suppression of data, Vioxx

The Food and Drug administration approves Vioxx for children who are over the age of 2 and have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. [US Food and Drug Administration, 6/1/2005 pdf file] The approval is announced on September 8. [United Press International, 9/8/2004; Medical News Today, 9/9/2004]

Entity Tags: US Food and Drug Administration

Category Tags: Vioxx

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. [Associated Press, 8/26/2004] Prior to the event, FDA officials had pressured him to water down his conclusions (see Mid-August 2004).

Entity Tags: Laura Alvey, Alise Reicin, David Graham, Merck

Category Tags: Vioxx

At a meeting attended by several officials and managers of the reviewing office of the FDA, David Graham, who recently presented a paper linking Vioxx to the deaths of more than 27,000 Americans, is asked by the director of the FDA reviewing office why he “even thought to study Vioxx and heart attacks because FDA had made its labeling change and nothing more needed to be done,” according to Graham’s later testimony to Congress. Also during the meeting, a senior manager from the Office of Drug Safety refers to Graham’s study as “a scientific rumor.” [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file]

Entity Tags: US Food and Drug Administration, David Graham

Category Tags: Vioxx

Merck voluntarily withdraws Vioxx from the market after a long term colon-polyp prevention study, called APPROVe, appears to show that the drug doubles the risk of heart attacks or strokes when taken for 18 months or longer. [Merck, 9/30/2004 pdf file] Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Lester M. Crawford praises Merck for “promptly reporting these finding” to the FDA. [US Food and Drug Administration, 9/30/2004] An estimated 107 million people have used Vioxx since it was approved in 1998. A paper by FDA scientist David Graham, published in the British medical journal Lancet, will later suggest that 88,000-140,000 Americans may have suffered serious coronary heart disease as a result of taking the drug. (see January 25, 2005)

Entity Tags: Lester M. Crawford

Category Tags: Vioxx

Raymond Gilmartin, Merck’s chairman and chief executive officer tells the Boston Globe he was “stunned” when he learned a Merck clinical trial had confirmed that Vioxx increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes. “It was totally out of the blue.… This was totally unexpected.” [Boston Globe, 10/9/2004]

Entity Tags: Raymond Gilmartin

Category Tags: Vioxx

David Graham, associate science director for the FDA’s Office of Drug Safety, appears before the Senate Committee on Finance to testify on the agency’s ability to protect the American public from harmful drugs. Graham, a twenty-year veteran of the agency, tells the committee that “the FDA, as currently configured, is incapable of protecting America against another Vioxx. We are virtually defenseless.” Graham was an early critic of Vioxx, a painkiller that was recalled in September (see September 30, 2004) because of its link to heart problems. Graham recounts how in August (see Mid-August 2004), the FDA tried to suppress a study he led which found that “nearly 28,000 excess cases of heart attack or sudden cardiac death were caused by Vioxx.” He says the study’s findings were “extremely conservative” and that “a more realistic and likely… estimate ranges from 88,000 to 139,000 Americans” of which “30-40 percent [or 26,400-55,600] probably died.” He notes that this figure is the “rough equivalent of 500 to 900 aircraft dropping from the sky… [or] 2-4 aircraft every week, week in and week out, for the past 5 years.” [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file] The remainder of Graham’s testimony focuses on problems within the FDA’s Office of Drug Safety (ODS). He makes the following points:
bullet The Office of New Drugs (ONS), which approves all new drugs, is the same division that is responsible for taking regulatory action against those drugs after they have been released on the market. This is an inherent conflict of interest, he notes, because when a problem arises, recognizing it would require the ONS to acknowledge that it had made a mistake. Instead, the office’s “immediate reaction [to a problem] is almost always one of denial, rejection, and heat.” [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file]
bullet The Office of Drug Safety (ODS) is subordinate to the Office of New Drugs, and consequently the management of the former sees its mission as pleasing the latter. [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file]
bullet The culture of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) “views the pharmaceutical industry it is supposed to regulate as its client, over-values the benefits of the drugs it approves and seriously under-values, disregards, and disrespects drug safety.” [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file]
bullet The Office of New Drugs refuses to take regulatory action on any drug unless it can be shown with 95 percent or greater certainty that it is unsafe. However “to demonstrate a safety problem with 95 percent certainty, extremely large studies are often needed… [and] those large studies cannot be done.” Graham suggests the 95 percent rule makes as much sense as a person with a 100-chamber pistol loaded with 90 bullets saying that the gun is safe. “Because there is only a 90 percent chance that a bullet will fire when I pull the trigger, CDER would conclude that the gun is not loaded and that the drug is safe.” [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file]

Entity Tags: David Graham

Category Tags: Defense of corporate interests, Defense of corporate interests, Vioxx

The British medical journal Lancet publishes a paper by FDA scientist David Graham suggesting that tens of thousands of Americans probably died from taking Vioxx, a painkiller that was recalled in September (see September 30, 2004). His study looked at data on 1.4 million Kaiser Permanente patients that took Vioxx, Celebrex, or another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSDAID) between 1999 and 2003. The data showed that the risk of having a heart attack or dying from heart problems was 1.6 times higher for patients taking standard-dose Vioxx compared with those using Celebrex. The risk was 3.6 times higher for those on high doses. Graham notes that Vioxx’s potential impact on the patient population was likely severe. Using the risk factors from Merck-sponsored randomized clinical trials, and extrapolating these to the estimated 106.7 million Vioxx patients, Graham says that the drug may have caused cardiovascular problems for 88,000-140,000 Americans. It is estimated that 44 percent of acute myocardial infarction’s are fatal. [Graham et al., 2005 pdf file; London Times, 1/25/2005] In November, Graham told Congress that senior managers at the FDA’s Office of Drug Safety had delayed giving Graham permission to publish this study, even after it had been accepted by Lancet. [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file]

Entity Tags: David Graham

Category Tags: Vioxx, Studies-Academic

An expert panel convened by the US Food and Drug Administration unanimously agrees that Celebrex, Bextra, and Vioxx “significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular events” such as heart attacks. However the panel does not believe that the risk is so great that these drugs should be banned from the market. (Vioxx was withdrawn from the market voluntarily by its manufacturer in September (see September 30, 2004).) The sales of these drugs should be permitted to continue, but only under strict conditions, the panel says. It also recommends a prohibition on direct marketing to consumers, a patient’s guide for the drug, and a black box warning—the most severe possible—detailing the drug’s cardiovascular side effects. [CNN, 2/18/2005; Washington Times, 2/19/2005] After the vote, the New York Times reveals that 10 of the panel’s 32 members had at one time been paid-consultants to the makers of the drugs in question. In analyzing the votes, the Times discovers that neither Bextra nor Vioxx would have survived the vote if the scientists with connections to the company had not voted. For both Bextra and Vioxx, the industry-connected panelists voted 9 to 1 in favor, while the experts with no ties voted 14 to 8 and 17 to 15 to ban Bextra and Vioxx, respectively. The Times notes in its article that “these votes were deeply important” for the makers of those drugs. After the votes, the shares of Merck and Pfizer increase substantially. In e-mails to the Times, eight of the panelists, responding to questions from the newspaper, say their votes were not influenced by their ties to the companies. Two of the panelists do not respond. One of the panel members, Dr. John Farrar, who has received research support from Pfizer, says, “I think FDA would have a hard time finding people who are good at what they do who never spoke to a pharmaceutical company.” But another panel member, Dr. Curt Furberg, who has no ties, says he was “uncomfortable with the Pfizer-friendly undertone” at the meeting and he felt the industry ties might have contributed to that tone. Furberg adds that it has never been proven that Celebrex, Bextra, or Vioxx offer better pain relief than ibuprofen or more than a dozen other over-the-counter drugs. Daniel E. Troy, the FDA’s former chief counsel and a longtime advocate of drug-maker interests, plays down the importance of the ties, saying that any suggestion that experts’ votes were influenced by industry connections “buys into an overly conspiratorial view of the world.” [New York Times, 2/25/2005]

Entity Tags: Daniel E. Troy, John Farrar, Curt Furberg, US Food and Drug Administration

Category Tags: FDA advisory panels, Vioxx

In a 93-1 vote, the US Senate passes the Food and Drug Administration Improvement Act of 2007 (H.R.2273), which grants the FDA broad new authority to monitor the safety of drugs after they are approved. It was based in part on the recommendations of a 2001 report by the Institute of Medicine (see September 22, 2001). The institute had been asked by the FDA to examine drug safety after it was revealed that the FDA and drugmaker Merck had permitted the drug Vioxx to stay on the market despite numerous indications that it increased patients’ risk of a heart attack. But the bill that is passed is much weaker than the original version, and ignores some of the institute’s most critical recommendations. A USA Today investigation will find that industry-friendly changes made to the bill were instigated by senators “who raised millions of dollars in campaign donations from pharmaceutical interests.” For example, 49 senators successfully defeated an effort that would have allowed US consumers to import lower-cost drugs from Canada and other industrialized countries. The senators who opposed the provision “received about $5 million from industry executives and political action committees since 2001—nearly three quarters of the industry donations to current members of the Senate,” USA Today found. Another factor contributing to the amendment’s failure was that President Bush said he would veto the bill if it permitted the imports. Also excised from the bill was language that would have give the FDA the authority to ban advertising of high-risk drugs for two years. This was one of the Institute of Medicine’s key recommendations. Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan) argued that the change would restrict free speech. Drug interests have given Roberts $18,000 so far this year, and $66,000 since 2001. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) was responsible for a change that reduced the agency’s power to require post-market safety studies. He insisted on limiting this authority so that the FDA could only target drugs when there’s evidence of harm. Gregg has received $168,500 from drug industry interests since 2001. The bill’s main sponsors—senators Edward Kennedy, (D-Mass) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo)—agreed to water down a proposal that would have required all clinical drug studies be made public after meeting with industry officials. The senators agreed to change the language so that only studies submitted to the FDA would be available. Enzi and Kennedy have received $174,000 and $78,000, respectively, from drug interests since 2001. Amendments aimed at reducing industry conflicts of interest on FDA expert advisory panels were also stripped from the bill. One of those amendments would have made it more difficult for scientists to advise the FDA on drug approval applications from a company the scientist had received money from. Another would have required that FDA panels consist of no more than one member with financial ties to the drug industry. The Senate also rejected an amendment to establish an independent FDA office to monitor the safety of drugs after they are released on the market. The office that currently has this authority is the same one that approves new drugs, an arrangement that lawmakers and at least one FDA scientist (see November 18, 2004) believe is a conflict of interest. [WebMD Medical News, 5/9/2007; US Congress, 5/10/2007; USA Today, 5/14/2007]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Judd Gregg, Mike Enzi, US Food and Drug Administration, Pat Roberts

Category Tags: Clinical drug studies, FDA advisory panels, Defense of corporate interests, Vioxx

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