What would you say if you knew someone had killed 60,000 people? Would you call it a felony of the worst kind, times 60,000? If you totaled up the value of all those lives in criminal court, what would you say they're worth?
Or—how about a measly $321 million in exchange for a guilty plea to a misdemeanor? When you consider that this involves the second-largest drug maker in the U.S.—Merck—and its deadly drug Vioxx, then you'll probably agree that a misdemeanor and a $321 million fine amounts to nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
Business analysts were estimating a $25 billion judgment when the drug was taken off the market, but even when combined with the $4.85 billion in payouts to patients who suffered heart attacks and strokesi, the final bill is nowhere close to original estimates of the damage.
Yet that's the plea agreement Merck recently made with a federal court in Boston on April 19ii, after being charged with illegal promotion of Vioxx for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, before it was approved for that use.
The sad tale brings up memories of what I tried to warn readers about in 1999, when I showed that people taking this drug were at a massively increased risk of dying from heart disease and stroke. It's tragic that Vioxx was removed only AFTER 60,000 people died.
It's even more tragic that a court would consider Merck's illegal promotion of the drug a misdemeanor rather than a felony, since this tactic clearly exposed far more people to the dangerous drug than it would have otherwise. And, adding insult to injury, instead of the billions that Merck anticipated paying out, it got away with such a paltry sum.
Hired Writers Responsible for Some of Merck's Vioxx Studies?
Particularly galling is the fact that these deaths could have been so easily avoided, were it not for the deceptive maneuvering of parties who stood to profit handsomely from the success of the drug.
Ghostwriting has become an increasingly troublesome problem in the medical science community, and the Vioxx debacle is a perfect example of why ghostwriting medical research is a devious practice that needs to be rooted out.
Merck has previously acknowledged that it has been known to hire professional writers to develop research-related documents that eventually get published under the name of reputable leaders in the medical community. Critics rightfully doubt the validity of such research, and question the actual involvement of the scientists listed as authors of these ghostwritten papers.
Back in 2008, Dr. Joseph S. Ross of New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine came across ghostwritten research studies for Vioxx while reviewing documents related to lawsuits filed against Merck.
According to an April 16, 2008 article on MedHeadlinesiii:
"In about 96 journal publications, Ross and his colleagues discovered internal Merck documents and e-mail messages pertaining to clinical study reports and review articles, some of which were developed by the company's marketing department, not its scientific department. In others, there is little evidence that the authors recruited for the report made substantial contribution to the research itself. ... Some of the authors listed in the Merck study reports of concern... question the true nature of ghostwriting. One neurologist originally listed as "External author?" and then listed as Dr. Leon J. Thal, of the University of California, San Diego in the final draft, died a year ago in an airplane crash."
An editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)iv that year by Drs. Psaty and Kronmal also questioned whether Merck might have deliberately manipulated dozens of academic documents published in the medical literature, in order to promote Vioxx under false pretenses.