ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Alzheimer's disease patients who took Vioxx in two studies had higher death rates than those on a placebo, but Merck & Co. (MRK) never notified physicians or its sales representatives, its former chief scientist conceded in testimony played in court Tuesday.
Edward Scolnick (search), former president of Merck Research Laboratories, said under questioning by a lawyer for a postal worker suing the Vioxx maker that doctors prescribing the popular arthritis drug should have been told about the data in 2001.
Merck pulled Vioxx off the market last year after a study showed it raised the incidence of heart attacks and strokes. The New Jersey trial, brought by Frederick "Mike" Humeston, 60, of Boise, Idaho, is the second of about 5,000 product liability lawsuits brought against the Whitehouse Station-based drug maker. Humeston survived a 2001 heart attack two months after he started taking Vioxx to ease pain from an old war wound.
The two Alzheimer's studies, involving about 2,000 patients, were done to determine whether Vioxx could delay the onset or worsening of the neurological disorder. In one, 13 people taking Vioxx died, compared with three taking a dummy pill; in the other, 21 Vioxx takers died, versus nine on placebo.
"You told people about this, right?" Humeston lawyer David Buchanan asked Scolnick in a videotaped May 17 deposition that was played for jurors.
Scolnick, who retired in 2002 and struggled to remember details of Merck's Vioxx studies, said he didn't know whether the data was given to the Food and Drug Administration (search).
Scolnick acknowledged no letter was sent to physicians and that data about deaths among Alzheimer's patients was not added to the information card Merck salespeople used to answer doctors' questions.
"You'd agree mortality data is important and something physicians should know?" Buchanan said.
"It's data the physician should know," said Scolnick.
During the deposition, Buchanan asserted Merck never issued a news release or sought to publish the data about the Alzheimer's studies. Scolnick, who repeatedly answered "I don't recall" to questions in deposition excerpts played Tuesday, did not refute that.
Merck shares fell 37 cents, or 1.3 percent, to $27.46 on the New York Stock Exchange (search).