A fascinating court case in Australia has been playing out around some people who had heart attacks after taking the Merck drug Vioxx. This medication turned out to increase the risk of heart attacks in people taking it, although that finding was arguably buried in their research, and Merck has paid out more than £2bn to 44,000 people in America – however, they deny any fault.
British users of the drug have had their application for legal aid rejected, incidentally: the health minister, Ivan Lewis, promised to help them, but documents obtained by the Guardian last week showed that within hours Merck launched an expensive lobbying effort that convinced the minister to back off.
This is a shame, because court cases can be tremendously revealing.
The first fun thing to emerge in the Australian case is email documentation showing staff at Merck made a "hit list" of doctors who were critical of the company, or of the drug. This list contained words such as "neutralise", "neutralised" and "discredit" next to the names of various doctors.
"We may need to seek them out and destroy them where they live," said one email, from a Merck employee. Staff are also alleged to have used other tactics, such as trying to interfere with academic appointments, and dropping hints about how funding to institutions might dry up. Institutions might think about whether they wish to receive money from a company like that in future. Worse still, is the revelation that Merck paid the publisher Elsevier to produce a publication.
The relationship between big pharma and publishers is perilous. Any industry with global revenues of $600bn can afford to buy quite a lot of adverts, and pharmaceutical companies also buy glossy expensive "reprints" of the trials it feels flattered by. As we noted in this column two months ago, there is evidence that all this money distorts editorial decisions.
Sounds like the Mob, doesn't it? We wonder if physicians, after reading about these tactics, will not question the Pharma-funded education they have received - and the Merck manual itself.
Hat tip to MDE: Thank you.