Merck Defends Vioxx as ‘One of Most-Studied’ Drugs at Latest Trial

March 8, 2006

An attorney for Merck & Co. insisted at the start of another Vioxx trial that the company adequately investigated the drug’s safety and asserted it was heart disease and other ailments, not Vioxx, that led to two former users’ heart attacks.

Staking out familiar turf, lawyer Christy Jones told a jury in opening statements in a courtroom in Atlantic City, N.J. Monday that the drug maker studied Vioxx for more than seven years before putting it on the market, complying with U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements.

“It was one of the most, if not the most, studied pain relievers ever to go on the market except aspirin,” Jones said.

Merck pulled Vioxx off the market in September 2004 after a clinical study showed it doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes after 18 months’ use.

The New Jersey-based company sold the drug beginning in 1999 as a pain reliever for arthritis and osteoarthritis sufferers who found other pain drugs too harsh on the stomach.

More than 9,650 lawsuits over Vioxx have been filed in state and federal courts.

So far, Merck has won two cases and lost one, and another Vioxx trial is being heard in Rio Grande City, Texas.

The latest case in New Jersey is expected to be closely watched because it is the first involving long-term Vioxx use, and even Merck conceded the drug may cause problems over a sustained period.

The plaintiffs, Thomas Cona, 59, and John McDarby, 77, have had their cases consolidated into one.

Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee is also using time limits _ and a pair of chess clocks to enforce them _ in a bid to accelerate the pace of litigation over the drug.

Merck faces plaintiffs’ lawyer Mark Lanier, who won a $253 million (euro210 million) verdict on behalf of a Vioxx user’s widow last August.

On Monday, Lanier’s quirky courtroom demeanor and combative interrogation skills were on full view, first in his opening statement and later in an abbreviated session with the case’s first witness, Merck marketing chief David W. Anstice.

Holding up packets of Vioxx pills as he spoke, Lanier said Merck’s development and testing of the drug was dominated by marketing concerns instead of medical ones and that Cona lived with heart disease risk factors but wasn’t stricken until he began taking Vioxx.

When Anstice took the stand, the two had a series of lively exchanges, with Lanier grilling him about Merck’s marketing of the drug and its desire in the late 1990s to come up with a drug that would sell enough to offset the loss of revenue from six Merck drugs that were soon to come off patent, clearing the way for competitors to begin selling equivalents.

Robert Gordon, a lawyer for McDarby, told the eight-woman, two-man jury that McDarby, who was a diabetic, would never have had Vioxx prescribed for his arthritis pain if Merck had properly warned of its dangers.

In his opening statement, Gordon said Merck sales representatives “falsely reassured” McDarby’s doctor about Vioxx’s safety and the lawyer sought to neutralize Merck’s arguments about McDarby’s medical problems by saying the drug was at least a contributing factor in his 2003 heart attack.

The heart attack left McDarby’s heart permanently damaged. The retired insurance agent went from being an active senior enjoying his golden years to a wheelchair-bound man who needs help from his wife to dress and use the toilet, his lawyer said.

In the last New Jersey trial, a jury absolved Merck of liability for an Idaho postal worker who suffered a heart attack after taking Vioxx for only two months.

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