Ax for VioxxOct 1, 2004 | New York Daily News The makers of the widely prescribed painkiller Vioxx had it pulled off the shelves yesterday after a new study confirmed that the drug increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Merck & Co.'s extraordinary move sent its 2 million regular users scurrying for a substitute, tanked its stock and set the stage for countless lawsuits against the world's third-largest pharmaceutical company.
"Everyone, obviously, has to come off Vioxx," said Dr. Stewart Greisman, a rheumatologist at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan. Vioxx is prescribed to arthritis patients who cannot stomach older anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
Most Vioxx users are expected to be put on a competing drug, Celebrex, which was found in a recent study not to raise the risk of heart attacks.
Michael Ludgate, 66, who has been on Vioxx for arthritis since it hit the market in 1999, said he will switch to ibuprofen until he can see his doctor.
"This [warning] seemed rather explicit, since they pulled it off the market," said Ludgate, who got a message from his pharmacy to stop taking the drug.
About 84 million people worldwide have taken Vioxx, one of the new generation of painkillers known as Cox-2 inhibitors, which generally cause fewer gastrointestinal problems than older anti-inflammatory drugs.
Merck axed Vioxx after a clinical trial showed patients on 25-milligram doses daily had double the risk of heart attacks and strokes after 18 months.
"We are taking this action because we believe it best serves the interests of patients," Merck's chief executive, Raymond Gilmartin, said in announcing the largest-ever prescription drug recall.
But personal injury lawyers charged the measure is too little, too late. New York law firm Parker & Waichman already has been retained by about 100 Vioxx users. It started legal action against the company even before yesterday's recall.
"Merck's exposure is huge because of the number of patients that have taken Vioxx over the years," said lawyer Jerrold Parker. "And each of the side effects are so catastrophic that every case is going to have a very large value."
Merck also circled its wagons.
"We have substantial defenses in these cases and will defend them vigorously," said Merck general counsel Kenneth Frazier.