By Jerry Avorn
A FEW BLOCKS from the high-rise casinos of Atlantic City, Merck & Co. Inc. is in the middle of a multi billion-dollar bet. A jury is about to decide whether the pharmaceutical giant knew that its blockbuster Vioxx could cause heart attacks, but then minimized that risk in the information it gave to doctors and patients. The decision could have implications for the prevention of future drug disasters more profound than all the tepid plans being discussed by Congress and the FDA.
Faced with thousands of patients assigned to her jurisdiction suing the drugmaker for Vioxx-related heart damage, Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee decided to first resolve a few over-arching issues, before getting to the details of each individual case. She'll instruct the jury first to determine whether the pain reliever could ever increase the risk of heart attack. Most experts agree that it does, and Merck took the drug off the market in 2004 when its own clinical trial proved it, but the company still does not fully acknowledge this fact. Next, she'll ask the jury a kind of pharmacological Watergate question: What did the company know, and when did it know it? And finally, did Merck misrepresent this risk in its promotional materials?