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Merck Heads to Capitol Hill

Nov 15, 2004 |

Pharmaceutical behemoth Merck heads to Capitol Hill Thursday to testify at a Senate hearing on whether the government should have forced the drugmaker to withdraw its Vioxx drug from the market before late September.

Merck abruptly pulled Vioxx, one of the world's most popular pain relievers, from the marketplace on Sept. 30 following news that a key study had found that long-term users of the drug suffered a significantly higher incidence of heart attacks or strokes. Vioxx had annual sales of approximately $2.5 billion.

Since Vioxx's demise, many lawmakers have criticized the Food and Drug Administration for not paying closer attention to various clinical data over the years that indicated Vioxx could cause heart problems. The agency did eventually hire expert cardiologists to review much of Vioxx's cardiovascular data, the results of which were released in August through Kaiser Permanente.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, called for the hearing, at which Merck Chairman Raymond Gilmartin and Acting FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford are both scheduled to appear.

It was still unclear on Monday whether Gilmartin would be actively questioned by the committee or would just read a prepared statement.

The Nov. 18 hearing is just the latest of Merck's legal woes. Two other congressional committees the House Committee on Government Reform and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions also have made inquiries into the matter.

Meanwhile, Merck has become the target of hundreds of lawsuits filed by either former Vioxx users who claim they've been injured or shareholders who claim they were misled by the company. Merck is also being probed by several state attorneys general, the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Shares of Merck closed up 2.42 percent to $27.09 Monday, despite the appearance of two negative reports over the weekend on the company's handling of the Vioxx debacle.

On Sunday, the New York Times ran a long article outlining how certain medical researchers have long suspected that Vioxx was causing cardiac problems in some patients, but that both Merck management and some officials at the Food and Drug Administration turned deaf ears.

Also on Sunday, CBS's "60 Minutes" aired a segment that similarly questioned whether Merck knew as early as 2000 that Vioxx was causing health problems and failed to act promptly.

While both news reports contained more detail about the allegations against Merck and the FDA, neither yielded any major new revelations about the case.

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