Merck hit by double blow over Vioxx

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The Independent Online

Merck, the giant drug manufacturer, suffered a double blow yesterday in its efforts to limit the financial fallout from the withdrawal of its blockbuster painkiller Vioxx.

A New Jersey court overturned a previous courtroom victory for the company because of new medical evidence. A respected academic journal has since disowned research that showed Vioxx was safe for short-term use.

And Merck was also ordered to pay its largest compensation payout so far after being found guilty for negligence that caused the heart attack of a former FBI agent. A New Orleans jury ordered the American drug maker to pay $51m to Gerald Barnett, who took Vioxx for 31 months.

From being the company's best-selling drug, accounting for 10 per cent of turnover, Vioxx has become Merck's biggest financial drain, with a $1bn legal bill so far, and a steady drip of damages payouts. More than 16,000 patients have come forward to demand compensation since the drug was withdrawn in 2004 because it increases the risks of heart attacks and strokes.

Before yesterday, Merck had won five court cases and lost only three, but the count is now four-four.

The New Jersey case of a postal worker, Frederick Humeston, which Merck won last November, will have to be retried. The following month, the New England Journal of Medicine expressed concerns about how Merck evaluated the safety of Vioxx in an important trial that it had published five years earlier.

The jury in Mr Barnett's case found that Merck knew more about the risks than it let on to doctors. It was ordered to pay $50m in compensation and a further $1m in punitive damages. In the first Vioxx trial, in Texas a year ago, Merck was ordered to pay $253m, but that will be reduced to $26m under state limits on damages.