Pharmaceutical giant Merck rocked the medical and financial worlds yesterday with a bombshell decision to recall its popular arthritis drug Vioxx after a study revealed that it raises the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Merck & Co. pulled the plug after a three-year study on the effect of Vioxx on colon cancer. Vioxx had once been labeled a wonder drug for its potential to help prevent cancer.
“In this study, there was an increased relative risk for confirmed cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroke, beginning after 18 months of treatment in the patients taking Vioxx compared to those taking placebo,” Merck said in a statement.
The decision sent worried patients scrambling for answers, and lawyers scurrying for clients.
“My wife was taking it, but she stopped right away after hearing the news,” said Fernando Bustamante, 54. “Now, she has to find something else to ease her pain.”
Attorneys wasted no time, saying that Merck’s voluntary recall had wrapped up existing evidence in a pretty bow.
“They’ve had a lot of warnings about Vioxx causing heart attacks and strokes,” said Jerrold Parker, a medical-malpractice lawyer.
“We firmly believe that this should have happened years earlier.”
Parker said his law firm is researching about 200 claims from Vioxx users and their families. Attorney Barry Slotnick said he is preparing to file within days a class-action suit that would hold Merck responsible for ignoring warnings for years.
“The news didn’t just come out today,” Slotnick said. “Today was the day that Merck decided to pull it off the shelf. The news has been out there. It wasn’t a great secret that Vioxx might cause heart attacks and strokes. Today, Merck made a confession.”
Merck executives said they could have continued selling the drug with a new warning, but decided that a voluntary recall was more responsible. “We have substantial defenses in these cases and will defend them vigorously,” said Kenneth Frazier, Merck’s general counsel.
Merck officials said the company would give customers refunds for unused pills, and urged patients to discuss with their doctors how to stop using the drug. As for alternatives, doctors said the jury is still out.
“If Vioxx causes these problems, can the other ones have problems, too?” wondered William Cole, a cardiologist at NYU Medical Center. “There’s going to have to be a lot of scrutiny. I’ve had a lot of phone calls. People are concerned.”
Pfizer, the maker of Celebrex and Bextra, two other arthritis drugs, could benefit from Merck’s misfortune, but only if doctors can demonstrate that Pfizer’s products won’t cause the same problems.
About 2 million people worldwide use Vioxx, and more than 84 million people have taken it since it debuted with great fanfare in 1999.
Patients take the drug to relieve pain and swelling associated with arthritis. The medication was popular because it caused few ulcers and gastrointestinal problems. An added bonus, pharmacists said, was that the drug could be used to prevent cancer in people at high risk of developing it.