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November 3, 2005
Merck Off the Mat
Everyone will have heard the news that Merck won their second Vioxx court case in New Jersey this morning. This came as a relief to me and to people like me, for several reasons. The immediate one was just that Merck had survived this latest round, of course. This wasn't a particularly strong case, and I had hopes that Merck would prevail, but you never know how juries are going to run.
And that brings up the second reason: if Merck had lost this one, they could expect to lose plenty more. The plaintiff in this case survived his heart attack, had a history of heart trouble and had other risk factors, and doesn't seem to have been a diligent user of Vioxx at all, which he only took for two months. I'm sure that hundreds (thousands?) of other cases could be found that rise to roughly this level, and Merck would likely be crippled by losing them. Now the focus shifts to a Federal court case in Houston, which starts later this month. I hate to put it in these terms, but this next one is going to be something of a tiebreaker.
I'm not saying that Merck should necessarily win every case, though. Vioxx does seem to carry some cardiovascular risk, Merck does seem to have charged ahead with it, and so many people took it that there must have been some people injured. But the FDA did approve the drug, let's not forget, and it's quite possible to argue that its benefits still outweigh its risks. And even if Merck were to win every trial from here on, they'e still be out a huge amount in legal fees. They've taken a beating, both in their reputation and in their finances, and that's not going away.
So no, I don't think Merck should be able to suddenly make all their troubles go away (not that that's going to happen). But neither do I think that they should be driven into the ground like a tent peg by repeated legal hammer-blows. Drug companies should be punished when they screw up. But destroying them for it, in a chancy industry like this one, will just ensure that we don't have many working drug companies.
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