BEIJING, Aug. 23 -- About 60,000 people worldwide are estimated to have died after using the painkiller Vioxx manufactured by Merck, the third-largest drug maker of the United States, which could face a potential US$18 billion lawsuit.
A Texas jury found last week Merck & Co. liable in the death of a 59-year-old marathon runner who took the once-popular pain reliever Vioxx, and awarded his widow US$253.4 million.
The case drew nationwide attention because it was the first of about 4,000 Vioxx wrongful death and injury lawsuits ¡ª including hundreds in Los Angeles ¡ª to reach trial.
The suits alleged that the company rushed Vioxx to market without adequate tests and downplayed risks of heart attacks and strokes from the blockbuster drug before voluntarily withdrawing it from the market last year.
Robert Ernst, the victim, had worked as a produce manager at Wal-Mart and died in his sleep of a heart problem in 2001 after taking Vioxx for eight months to ease pain in his hands.
Merck said it was disappointed by the verdict and would appeal.
A total of 103 suspected Vioxx-related deaths have been officially notified in Britain. Most died of heart or gut complications after taking the drug. But calculations by The Sunday Times, based on known levels of underreporting by doctors of medicine-related deaths, suggest that the true toll is closer to 2,000.
Lawyers for many of the relatives are considering filing claims in U.S. courts against the pharmaceuticals giant, after the Legal Services Commission decided not to fund any cases in Britain.
The families of the dead will be joined by patients who survived but who blame serious conditions, such as strokes and paralysis, on the drug.
In one British case, Kenneth Wood, 71, a retired Shropshire laboratory technician, died of a massive heart attack while taking part in a trial to see if the painkiller could also be effective in treating colon cancer.
A confidential Merck report, not revealed to Wood¡¯s widow, described his death as ¡°probably¡± caused by the drug. Other participants who suffered problems included a 73-year-old Leeds man who died from the complications of stomach bleeding; a 78-year-old man from Grimsby who developed angina; and a Yeovil woman, aged 64, whose heart failed after she started taking Vioxx.
Informed consent documents and other confidential papers show that Wood was not told of any serious risks and that mounting concerns among scientists and regulators, which had surfaced several years earlier, were kept from trial participants.
Merck achieved a worldwide market of some 20 million users by promoting Vioxx as a miracle drug. It was said to offer all the painkilling and other properties of aspirin, but without the commonest side effect: stomach ulcers. Doctors prescribed it for pain control for everything from arthritis to sports injuries.
The documents that have emerged suggest evidence of serious problems with Vioxx which were downplayed.
Drugs such as Vioxx, and Pfizer Inc.¡¯s Celebrex, were developed as more stomach-friendly treatments than other antiinflammatory drugs such as naproxen or Advil.
Vioxx generated US$2.5 billion in sales for Merck last year. In September 2004, the company pulled the drug from the market after a study showed that it doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes after 18 months of use.
(Source: Shenzhen Daily/Agencis)