Video: Merck's Vioxx controversy

By Robert Bazell Chief medical correspondent
NBC News
updated 11/12/2004 7:25:32 PM ET 2004-11-13T00:25:32

Since pulling Vioxx from the market in late September, Merck has faced a plunge in its stock, and a surge in lawsuits from patients who claim the company knew of the heart dangers for years. What did Merck know, and when did it know it?

With Senate hearings looming next week Raymond Gilmartin, Merck's CEO, told NBC his side of the story. Some say Merck, once the most highly regarded of companies, put profits before patient safety:

Raymond Gilmartin: "I totally disagree with that. We acted responsibly at every step of the way here."

Robert Bazell: "So you're saying before September 30, there was no evidence of a cardiac risk in Vioxx?"

Gilmartin: "On September 30, September 30 was the first time we had good evidence."

But what is "good evidence"? Recent scientific articles conclude the risk was apparent four years ago. The Wall Street Journal published memos showing company executives worried about the danger as far back as 1996.

Gilmartin: "They were deliberately presented out of context and therefore intended to misrepresent the internal consensus around the documents as well as our business practices."

Bazell: "The FDA, on its Web site, has posted a study that estimates that 27,000 excess heart attacks occurred because people took Vioxx."

Gilmartin: "It's not necessarily the case. It's not the case that because someone took Vioxx, that the Vioxx caused the heart attack."

Still, Merck was worried enough that, according to documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal, it tried to pressure doctors who raised concerns.

Gilmartin: "We basically approached, you know, in terms of a rigorous scientific debate, in terms of wanting all the information out there in a balanced way."

Bazell: "You sued a doctor in Spain for suggesting a cardiovascular problem with Vioxx."

Gilmartin: "Well, the people in Spain felt strongly that the data with Vioxx was not being presented in a balanced way."

Bazell: "And in hindsight they were correct, right?"

Gilmartin: "It was an event or pattern that had not been anticipated by anyone."

But the charges the company should have anticipated the danger have knocked $40 billion off the value of the company's stock, hurting many pension and mutual funds.

Bazell: "Do you think you're going to preside over the destruction of Merck?

Gilmartin: "In no way will I preside over the destruction of Merck."

But many experts say Merck's biggest struggles are still ahead.

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