Monday, June 06, 2005

Allegations That Merck Threatened Researchers Who Expressed Doubts About Vioxx

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported a series of allegations that a top Merck executive threatened and intimidated physicians who questioned the safety of its Cox-2 inhibitor drug Vioxx, now off the market.
Louis M. Sherwood, who retired as a Senior Vice President of Medical and Scientific Affairs for Merck, had been known as "the epitome of an upstanding guy, smart and well-respected." The Inquirer reported that "Sherwood earned accolades from both worlds [academia and industry]. At retirement in March 2002, he was given two lifetime achievement awards, one from industry physicians and one from medical-schol professors."
Nonetheless, evidence discovered in one of the cases against Merck revealed:
  • Lee Simon, a former Harvard faculty member, after lecturing about the risks of Vioxx, said he was threatened by Sherwood: "he would hurt my career if I continued to lecture." Sherwood also charged that Simon was biased against Vioxx. However, the Inquirer reported that Simon's "boss at Harvard, Steven Weinberger, now a Vice-President at the American College of Physicians in Philadelphia, confirmed getting Sherwood's call but said it had 'nothing to do' with Simon's promotion." Weinberger stated, "Lou Sherwood was not at all threatening me." Yet, John Yates, Sherwood's successor at Merck, contacted Simon, and said, according to him, that Sherwood's behavior "would never happen again, that it was unnecessary, that it was not the behavior of Merck." [Note that Dr. Weinberger has appeared in Health Care Renewal posts in the past, here, here, and here, on the subject of declining interest in primary care, which he has suggested is due more to shortcomings in how medical schools promote the field to students and due to inadequate current "chronic care models" than to pressures faced by practicing physicians, including external threats to their core values.]
  • M. Thomas Stillman, from the University of Minnesota Medical School, also questioned the safety of Vioxx. A Merck "sales executive" described him as a "vocal adversary of Merck and Vioxx" in an email. A memo documented that Sherwood had "complained to Stillman's boss." Yates also called Stillman to apologize.
  • Gurkirpal Singh, from Stanford University, questioned whether data about Vioxx was being hidden. A memo by Sherwood described Singh as "perceived as an advocate for Searle," which was then the manufacturer of the competing drug, Celebrex. The Inquirer reported that Sherwood called Singh's supervisor, Professor James F. Fries, at home, labeled Singh "anti-Vioxx," suggested Singh would "flame out," and threatened Fries with "consequences for myself and for Stanford," according to Fries. Fries wrote Merck to complain, noting all the above cases and those of two other researchers. Fries then got a call from David Anstice, President of the Human Health-Americas division of Merck, saying that Sherwood's behavior was "not the norm," and promising to take action.
These are serious allegations, involving apparent efforts by a pharmaceutical company to stifle free speech and academic freedom to suppress unfavorable comments about the company's products. Such behaviors threaten core academic and scientific values. If physicians and researchers cannot openly discuss scientific findings, science will not advance. If they cannot openly discuss possible harms to patients, patients may be harmed.
Unfortunately, if these allegations are true, they will become just another entry in the sorry catalog of threats to free speech and academic freedom in medicine, (which may relate to the many threats to free speech and academic freedom in colleges and universities, such as those that have been documented by FIRE.)
Physicians and scientists must learn how to defend themselves against such threats, or science, and worse, patients will suffer.

1 comment:

james gaulte said...

I can barely keep up with clipping the articles you write on the subject of the activities of big pharma. Thank you for helping everyone keep up with this saga which seems to get worse and worse the more we hear about it.