For Merck, a Painful Withdrawal
By Brooke A. Masters and Marc Kaufman
The two Merck & Co. executives were somber as the company plane
pitched and rolled through the remnants of Hurricane Jeanne on the
night of Sept. 28. The turbulence outside the aircraft was an echo of
the corporate tempest leading up to their trip.
For five days Merck had been struggling with what to do with
frightening new data that showed that long-term use of their $2.5
billion arthritis drug Vioxx doubled the risk of heart attacks and
strokes, confirming concerns raised by earlier studies. Now research
lab director Peter S. unsel Ken Frazier were flying to Boston to tell
one of the men most responsible for Vioxx's success that Merck would be
pulling the drug in two days.
As they sat at the former lab director's dining table that night, they
watched Edward M. Scolnick, who had been a champion of the drug before
he retired, take in the implications of the data and become
"despondent," they said. Scolnick was the one who had thrown Merck's
resources behind the creation of Vioxx, a painkiller with fewer
gastrointestinal side effects than traditional drugs. Backed by a $195
million advertising campaign, featuring testimonials from former skater
Dorothy Hamill and music by the Rascals to appeal to aging boomers,
Merck had sold Vioxx to more than 20 million Americans since its
approval in 1999 and millions more worldwide.
Now their wonder drug was suddenly under a cloud and Merck officials
faced a difficult decision about how to handle the catastrophe.
On Sept. 30, the company would take the dramatic step of withdrawing
the drug, sending the price of its stock into a steep slide that wiped
out a quarter of the company's value, a slide from which it has not yet
An examination of how and why Merck reacted offers an unusual look at
how safety issues are handled in clinical trials once a drug is on the
market and the complex business of weighing risks against benefits.
Even as Merck was deciding to withdraw the drug, there were medical
experts arguing that it should not. It also shows that federal
regulators often rely on drug companies to tell them that a product is
dangerous . The whole saga, industry experts said, raises unsettling
questions about aggressive consumer marketing of drugs before their
long-term safety has been proven.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) who has launched an investigation into
the Food and Drug Administration's handling of Vioxx said one of the
questions will be whether "a too cozy relationship between the FDA and
drug companies is getting in the way of public safety."
Over the past two weeks The Washington Post has interviewed
independent researchers who collected and reviewed the Vioxx data,
company officials who decided how Merck would respond, critics of the
drug industry and regulators who, in the end, played almost no role in
With Vioxx, researchers had been warning about the drug's possible
cardiovascular risks since 2000, only a year after it was approved by
the FDA. Data from a company study found then that users had four times
as many heart attacks and strokes as those who used another painkiller.
But the data was not definitive, and Merck, which even critics say is
one of the most responsible drug companies, repeatedly reassured the
medical and financial communities that Vioxx was safe.
Independent studies of Vioxx users continued to add to the questions,
and the FDA began its own review. The safety officer who conducted it
concluded this summer that the drug posed a serious risk. But he said
that the results were ignored and that the FDA made efforts to silence
When the recall occurred, it came about finally because of a major
clinical study sponsored by Merck that tracked 2,600 patients for
almost three years to find out if Vioxx helped prevent colon polyps.
Merck launched the effort hoping to create new markets for Vioxx, while
also laying to rest questions about the drug's connection to heart
attacks and strokes.
Far from it, the trial confirmed the predictions of Merck's harshest
critics, who had long complained that the New Jersey manufacturer was
closing its eyes to Vioxx's problems and improperly pushing a dangerous
drug onto consumers with aggressive ads. Vioxx and other Cox-2
inhibitors like Celebrex had been promoted as wonder drugs, since they
provided pain relief to arthritis sufferers without causing stomach
problems, but now Vioxx is off the market and the others are under a
Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Eric J. Topol, an early critic of the
drug, estimates Vioxx may have caused 30,000 to 100,000 heart attacks
and strokes, many of them "preventable" because patients could have
taken other drugs. "Why didn't they stop the DTC [direct to consumer]
marketing?" that was a major factor in increasing sales, he said.
"That's the tragedy here."
Data and a Decision to Make
The last days of Vioxx began with FedEx deliveries on Sept. 14. That
was when the four members of the colon polyp trial's Data and Safety
Monitoring Board, an independent panel of specialists hired to catch
harmful developments in the trial, received heart attack and stroke
data for the previous six months.
Most clinical trials include independent safety monitors, and their
role is little understood but crucial. The four monitors, along with a
Merck statistician were the only ones with full access to information
about the trial, including which patients were getting Vioxx and which
were getting the placebo. As a result, they alone were in a position to
conclude the drug had proven too dangerous for the trial to continue.
The same team also was monitoring another Merck trial to see if Vioxx
might help protect against prostate cancer. A third trial was studying
the drug's effect on colon cancer was also underway. All three trials
were placebo-controlled and "blinded" to investigators, making them the
most trusted kind of drug research. These studies also were designed to
answer questions about cardiovascular risk raised by earlier less
From the beginning of the colon polyp study, the safety monitors had
noted an increased rate of hypertension among the Vioxx group. In
addition, in 2003 and earlier this year, they found that more people in
the Vioxx group were having cardiovascular events than in the placebo
group. The numbers were small, in part because people with heart
disease had been screened out of the trial, but the trend had been
worrisome and the latest data were striking: After 18 months on the
drug, the Vioxx group was clearly having more heart problems than the
placebo group, and the rate of difference was accelerating.
"When I saw the last set of data, I knew we had a tough decision to
make," said James Neaton, a University of Minnesota biostatistician,
who had monitored a dozen other studies but seldom had seen such
troubling data. "There was so much at stake for everyone involved. . .
. You have to have data that the scientific community will accept."
Neaton and the three safety committee members spent several days
studying the data, then held their regularly scheduled phone conference
Sept. 17. They talked first with Merck representatives and the
principal investigator for the colon polyp trial, John Baron of
Dartmouth Medical School.
Then Baron and the Merck people left the call, freeing the four safety
panel members to talk openly about the latest unsettling data.
Disturbing on its own, it also echoed less conclusive data from other
The experts agreed unanimously that the trial had to stop. "Coming to
that conclusion, it took our breath way," Neaton said. Vioxx was
Merck's fourth top seller, and they knew their decision would be
extremely harmful to the company.
Neaton immediately called Baron, who was conducting the trial with a
grant from Merck, and explained the problem.
When Neaton faxed him the "unblinded" data, the signal was clear:
Within the small population of people suffering from cardiovascular
disease, the number from the Vioxx group after 18 months of study was
twice as high as the placebo group -- 15 heart attacks or strokes per
1,000 patients per year, versus 7.5 for the sugar pill. "I looked at it
and concurred immediately that the trial should stop," Baron said. But
first, Baron needed to get the approval of his steering committee of
others involved in the trial. This took nearly a week during which
Baron took precautions to guard against leaks of negative information
and insider trading of Merck shares.
On Sept. 23 the full committee agreed to halt the trial. That
afternoon, Baron called his contact at Merck to say that the drug
presented an unacceptable risk of cardiovascular damage.
Baron said in the next few days, as he presented the data to company
officials and some outside Merck advisers, he experienced "no pushback
at all." But then again, he said, "if an independent committee makes a
recommendation like ours, only a fool would tell us to buzz off."
Merck lab director Kim heard the news on when he dialed into his
voicemail while driving to work, 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 24.
"I was stunned," said Kim who had expected positive results. He and
other Merck scientists poured over the data, looking for flaws but
finding none. At midday, Kim got the general counsel Frazier on the
line and called Raymond V. Gilmartin, Merck's chairman, president and
"The drug held up for three years. When you've been going this long
you don't expect this kind of phone call," Gilmartin remembered in an
interview soon after the drug was pulled.
Merck critics, and there are many, say the company had plenty of
warning. Yet Merck continued advertising.
"There was so much denial over there," said David Moskowitz, senior
pharmaceutical analyst for Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Co., noting that
Merck officials were defending the drug to stock analysts just a few
weeks before it was withdrawn.
Last week, Gilmartin and Kim still said that none of the earlier Vioxx
studies, by either the company or others, convincingly showed increased
heart and stroke risk from the drug. As a result, they said, there was
no reason to stop the advertising campaign.
"We were acting totally consistent with the data we had," Gilmartin
said. "We undertook right away to ask the right questions." The company
was trying to get at cardiovascular risk, he said, by initiating three
clinical trials that would together give important new information on
the issue. Many doctors and patients liked Vioxx's track record on
gastrointestinal problems, a major source of worry for arthritis
But, on the phone call, when Kim delivered the new, more damaging
results, Gilmartin's choices were bleak. Even if the painkiller stayed
on the market, sales would almost certainly plummet because its
advertising would be restricted and would have to carry a "black box"
warning about the heart attack risks.
Gilmartin was clear that the trial should be halted and that the drug
might have to be taken off the market . "Look Peter, we're going to
make this decision based on what's in the best interest of science and
patient safety," Gilmartin recalled saying. "It's not that we're
unaware of the consequences, but it's a deep-seated belief that if you
do the right thing, rewards will follow," he said of the decision to
pull the drug.
The decision was also sound litigation strategy. The company was
already facing two class action lawsuits alleging patient harm from
Vioxx. Anything that smacked of a cover-up would have strengthened the
"Running away from your problems, denial, is the worst possible
choice," said Anthony M. Sabino, professor of business law at St.
Over the next three days, Kim and his researchers convened three
teleconferences with about 15 outside medical experts to get their
advice. By then, Kim said, he was leaning toward pulling the drug. But
the outside experts, most of whom had done previous work with Merck and
were offered a fee for their consultation, had surprisingly mixed
A sizeable group were reluctant to give up a painkiller proven to have
fewer gastrointestinal side effects than others and were not convinced
the available alternatives were any safer, participants said. (On
Friday, Pfizer Inc. issued a warning that its Cox2 drug Bextra may
increase cardiovascular risk for some patients.) Duke University
cardiologist Robert Califf argued strenuously on one teleconference for
keeping the drug on the market with a much stronger warning label. He
had been railing publicly for some time about the absence of long-term
cardiovascular risk studies on painkillers, a situation that he said
made selecting the right drug a "total crapshoot."
In his view, the new Vioxx data quantified the risk and made it
manageable. "The curves show not even a hint of a detrimental effect
for 18 months," and even after that the risks did not appear that
large. "I thought the risk was going to be larger than it was," he
said. "It should stay on the market as an alternative."
But Northwestern University rheumatologist Thomas G. Schnitzer argued
for ditching Vioxx entirely because Merck's scientists could not
explain why the drug started causing heart attacks after 18 months.
Furthermore, Merck's carefully cultivated image would go out the
if Vioxx stayed on the market, he said, because Merck "prides itself on
its ethical approach. I couldn't see Merck saying we're going to market
a drug with a safety problem."
At lunchtime on Monday, Sept. 27, it was time to make a final
decision. Kim, Frazier and Gilmartin gathered in the chief executive's
conference room overlooking Merck's wooded campus in Whitehouse
Station, N.J. The lab director's message came in two parts: the experts
were divided over whetherMerck had to pull Vioxx off the market, but
Kim thought they should do it anyway.
Gilmartin said he agreed the drug should be pulled but wanted to take
a decision of that magnitude to his board of directors who concurred
when they met the next day. By then, Merck had notified the FDA that it
needed an emergency meeting that afternoon, and asked that top
officials be present.
In the meeting, top FDA officials were shown preliminary slides from
the colon polyp study and were told by Merck that the drug would be
withdrawn. The FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research director
Steven Galson said there was discussion of keeping the drug for
short-term use, but the company did not think it was practical.
Fearful of a leak, Merck officials waited until the next day,
Wednesday, to tell international affiliates of the planned withdrawal
and asked them to hold off on telling their regulators until the news
was made public. Three Merck officials sat up all night Wednesday
answering e-mails and phone calls from the foreign medical directors.
Withdrawal day started early, with an 4 a.m. e-mail to Merck's 60,000
employees alerting them to a major announcement. At 9 a.m. on Sept. 30,
Gilmartin and Kim took the stage at the Hilton Times Square and faced a
room packed with reporters and television cameras.
"This morning Merck is announcing a voluntary worldwide withdrawal of
Vioxx," Gilmartin began.
Warning From the FDA
Since the Merck decision, public health advocates and some
congressional leaders have asked pointedly why the FDA, the nation's
arbiter of drug safety, did not act sooner itself. The FDA's Galson
said that his agency met often with Merck to discuss earlier troubling
Vioxx studies, and said that "we insisted that we needed more
information about the cardiovascular risks." In 2001, the agency
formally warned the company against misleading doctors about those
risks, and in 2002, the FDA required stiffer wording on the drug label.
Nonetheless, the agency had agreed with Merck that the 2000 study had
too many confounding aspects to be definitive. The national adverse
event reporting system that helps the FDA flag dangerous side effects
was of little use in this case because the ailments possibly caused by
Vioxx -- heart attacks and strokes -- are so common.
Galson also said that Vioxx safety follow-up was complicated by the
fact that it is unethical to give placebos to arthritic patients,
because their pain needs treatment. Instead the FDA strongly supported
the Merck decision to use three placebo-controlled trials in healthy
people to test whether the drug was protective against prostate and
colon cancer and colon polyps and also to study cardiovascular risk.
The FDA's own study of the Vioxx safety issue has become mired in
controversy. The FDA safety officer in charge of the report, David
Graham, concluded that Vioxx posed much greater cardiovascular risk
than the other major drug in its class, Celebrex. He presented that
information at a French conference this summer. Galson has said,
however, that he only saw a short abstract of the study and so could
not act on its conclusions, a contention that Graham disputes.
The controversy grew on Friday when Grassley asked Merck, among other
things, about an e-mail provided by Graham in which a Merck official
complained that the FDA had not lived up to a prior agreement to alert
the company before releasing any negative information about its
The FDA's opportunity to act independently on Vioxx ended on Sept. 27,
when the fax came from Merck asking for an urgent meeting with senior
officials. The next day surprised FDA officials learned the drug would
Despite the criticism directed at his agency, Galson remains
unapologetic. "We did the right things based on what we knew at the
time," he said. But taking the drug off the market, he said, was the
right thing, too.