My piece on Merck last week seems to have touched a few nerves, if some of the comments and e-mails I’ve received are any sign. To clarify things: I agree that Merck is still doing some excellent science, as they always have. And they still have a lot of good people there, as they always have. Those aren’t the problems. And they’re still introducing some innovative drugs, arguably more than a lot of other companies, and that’s not the problem, either. These are all are admirable things.
And Vioxx, as I said here at the time, was not, in my opinion, necessarily a bad drug. It and the other COX-2 inhibitors have a real place in the pharmacopeia. The problem is that Merck – or, to put the usual face-saving perspective on it, Merck’s marketing department – oversold the stuff. The prospect of an aspirin-sized market was too much for them to resist, so the company pushed Vioxx just about as hard as they possibly could.
Yep, Vioxx was for all kinds of patients, all kinds of pain, all the time – and under those conditions, whatever side effects were there were finally revealed. It’s the company’s bad luck (not to mention the bad luck of their patients) that those effects were as potentially severe as they were. Even so, the increased risk of a heart attack with Vioxx use is extremely small in any absolute sense. For people with severe pain who can’t get relief with other drugs, I think a COX-2 inhibitor is absolutely worth it.
But that’s not what you’d think from reading the newspapers, or from listening to the lawyers. It was expedient to paint the company as a bunch of callous poisoners; Merck’s reputation has been hooked to the back of a pickup truck and pulled through a swamp. (They didn't always do themselves much good during that period, either). And while the good name was bouncing off the tree stumps and scooping up the mud, the company had to spend vast amounts of money to deal with all those lawsuits, which is money that presumably could have been used for something else. (OK, some of that is coming from insurance – but think of how much more they’ll be paying for that coverage now).
Which is what worries me about taranabant. I realize, as several commenters to the previous post pointed out, that it may well differ in selectivity and CB-1 receptor activity from rimonabant. If the compound is an inverse agonist instead of an antagonist at the receptor, that could well be good news. Or, you know, it might not be, since we have no idea of what an inverse agonist will do, either. (More on the difference between those terms in a future post). At any rate, discovering new things about human CNS functions while a bunch of lawyers watch doesn’t sound like a good idea. If Merck does end up going down the Vioxx path again, another run through the swamp will do it no good at all.