A recent item from InVivoBlog about Merck which brought up some interesting points. They aren’t cheerful ones. The article is largely about Merck’s reputation, which has taken some dents in recent years, to put it lightly. The Vioxx debacle is the main reason for this, but the hits have kept on coming, such as the latest controversy over the release of the disappointing Vytorin study data.
So, although this is a painful question, perhaps it needs to be asked: remember when Merck was above all that stuff? Maybe there should be a “seemed” in that sentence somewhere; that might take some of the sting away. But the company really did have a singular reputation at one time. Depending on your point of view, you could have used words like “insular” or “arrogant” to describe the culture over there, but they were distinctive.
Merck didn’t merge with anyone. They stuck with targets and projects for years and years if they thought something would come out of them. And (until Vioxx) they avoided the sorts of disasters that seemed to hit other companies. That’s gone. Not all gone – they still seem to run on longer timelines over there – but one of the most distinctive things about the company was how it guarded its reputation, and that seems to have slipped down the list. They didn't have to do ad campaigns like this one. The company's trying to convince people, or convince themselves, that things haven't changed, but they're wrong.
The other thing that struck me about the article was about the development of the company’s CB-1 antagonist. That’s the same mechanism as rimonabant, Sanofi-Aventis’s failed wonder drug for obesity. (OK, it’s on the market as Acomplia in several countries, but considering what people had thought it would do, it’s a failure, all right). I question Merck’s judgment in pushing another compound into that area, although these programs do take on a life of their own. And as the In Vivo post points out, Merck’s current reputation of pushing every drug as hard as possible won’t help it when it comes to getting the drug through the FDA.
The biggest problem with rimonabant was the comparison of its side effects to its efficacy. It does seem to help people lose weight, although not to any startling extent, but in a large patient population various psychiatric side effects showed up. Taranabant's side effect profile isn't yet clear. Merck is going to have to tread lightly, but can they? The situation is a bit too much like Vioxx, with a huge, lucrative market out there if you can just expand the patient population. And we can argue about just how bad Vioxx really was, and about its risk/benefit ratio, but that won't change the fact that it was a catastrophe for Merck. The last thing they need is another one. I don't think I would have picked this time to push another CB-1 antagonist forward, but I suppose we don't get to pick that sort of thing. . .