August may be a slow news month, but not for stories about what’s wrong with the drug industry. In just one recent week, the New York Times published three articles that exposed what we’re up against with Big Pharma–and the weakness of the agency that’s supposed to regulate it.
On August 6, “At Midpoint of Vioxx Trial, Merck Looks Battered” explained how the drug company Merck “appears to be in a deep hole” in its court case in Texas, where it was being sued by the family of a Wal-Mart employee, Robert Ernst. The family charged that Ernst died from an arrhythmia caused by the painkiller Vioxx after taking the medicine for eight months. The coroner who did the autopsy on Ernst told the jury that “Vioxx was probably responsible for Mr. Ernst’s death,” the Times reported. And the jury agreed this afternoon as it found Merck liable in Ernst’s death and awarded his widow a settlement of $253 million.
And this is just the first of more than 4,000 other lawsuits in which the company is being sued over Vioxx in state courts in California, Texas and New Jersey and in US federal court, with liabilities for the company potentially running as high as $30 billion.
The second article ran three days later. “Today’s Insider Trading Suspect May Wear a Lab Coat” exposes another problem that has led to our unsafe market for prescription drugs. Doctors and scientists are now joining forces with the big drug companies to promote their products and are increasingly “working as consultants to investors, especially hedge funds,” the Times reported.
Most important, though, the SEC is “taking a closer look at whether doctors, participating in criminal trials with drug companies, are accepting money to talk to analysts and investors about the confidential results of a trial.” (Another piece in the Times from August 16 reported that “nearly 10 percent of the nation’s 700,000 doctors have signed up as consultants” on investment deals. And, according to a Times editorial, doctors make anywhere from $200 to $1,000 an hour on consulting.)
The Seattle Times reported, after completing its own investigation, that it found “at least 26 cases in which doctors have leaked confidential and critical details of their ongoing drug research to Wall Street firms.” Doctors who did the leaking were affiliated with top universities like UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania as well as companies like Citigroup, Smith Barney and Wachovia.