Q: Who killed more Americans —al Qaeda crashing airplanes into the World Trade Center, or Merck pushing Vioxx?
A: Merck, by a factor of 18.
One of the most downplayed stories of our time ended with a whimper this week. “Merck has agreed to pay $950 million and has pleaded guilty to a criminal charge over the marketing and sales of the painkiller Vioxx,” the New York Times reported Nov. 23 (in the business section, where important medical news is usually found). The pharmaceutical giant copped to a misdemeanor: urging MDs to prescribe Vioxx for Rheumatoid Arthritis prior to 2002, when the Food & Drug Administration approved its use for that disorder.
The FDA had initially approved Vioxx (after a hasty “priority review”) in May, 1999 to treat osteoarthritis, acute pain, and menstrual cramps. By September 30, 2004, when Merck announced its “voluntary recall,” some 25 million Americans had been prescribed the widely hyped drug. Evidence that using Vioxx doubled a patient’s risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke —based on a review of 1.4 million patients’ records— was about to be published in Lancet by David Graham, MD, an FDA investigator. The FDA director’s office, devoted valet of Big PhRMA, had contacted the Lancet in a futile effort to stop publication of their own scientist’s findings.
Graham’s data indicate that 140,000 Americans suffered Vioxx-induced heart attacks and strokes; 55,000 died, and many more were permanently disabled. The Merck executives’ real crime was conspiracy to commit murder.
Some 3,000 Americans died in the attack on the World Trade Center. The murders perpetrated by Merck executives were not as dramatic, obviously, but were every bit as intentional. An early clinical trial had alerted them to the fact that Vioxx caused coronary damage. Their response was to exclude from future trials anyone with a history of heart trouble!
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