Thursday, November 17, 2011

What Could Penn State Scandal Have To Do with Pharma?

If you're tired of reading abbout the scandal at Penn State's football program (and the university that's a small branch of that program) and you came to this blog for a moment of respite, sorry to disappoint you.

As the extremely talented former NPR reporter Snigda Prakash writes in Slate:

--there is an unfortunate link between Penn State and Merck's Vioxx debacle, through the intermediary of Merck CEO and former chief legal counsel, Kenneth Frazier. Frazier is now a member of the Penn State board of trustees and was selected by his fellow trustees to head the University's internal investigation into the scandal involving the failure to report a former football coach for allaged child sexual abuse. The University has put out the usual word as to how this investigation will leave no stone unturned, let the chips fall where they may, and whatever the cliche of your choice.

So would you select Mr. Frazier to lead such an investigation? As Ms. Prakash reports in detail, let's follow his track record at Merck. First the company did its best to conceal the cardiac risks associated with its blockbuster drug rofecoxib (Vioxx), leading to an estimated 80-140K excess cases of serious heart disease during the years that the drug was on the market and after clear evidence of serious risk had emerged (as I discussed in detail in HOOKED). And Merck didn't just leave it on the market; they promoted the holy heck out of it (remember Dorothy Hamill skating on the TV ads?), milking it for every last penny before they finally had to pull the drug in 2004.

Now Mr. Frazier was in a top spot at Merck while this was all going down but probably he was not personally responsible. But he can take full credit for what happened next, in his post as chief counsel. Merck then went into lawsuit defense mode as all the people with heart attacks who had taken Vioxx started to sue. Predictions were that Merk would have to shell out $25 to $50B to pay all the settlements. But Merck decided instead on a bold defense strategy that Prakash describes as "scorched earth." They put out $2B to hire the best legal talent in the country and to fight every single suit. From an epidemiological standpoint it was smart. It's easy to calculate that 80-140K excess cases of heart disease were caused by Vioxx across the whole US population. It is nearly impossible to prove difinitively that any patient who took Vioxx, and then had a heart attack, had the heart attack because he took Vioxx and for no other reason at all. (If you want to read all about the Vioxx legal challenge, see Prakash's book, All the Justice Money Can Buy.)

So Merck fought every case, lost some but won a bunch of others, and in the end was able to wrangle a general settlement for a mere $5B. No doubt it was this brilliant strategy as chief counsel that Merck rewarded by making Mr. Frazier their CEO.

So Penn State wants to put its investigation into the hands of a guy who first, did his best (in company with all the corporate leadership) to conceal the truth to assure that a favored brand continued to make profits; and second, once the truth came out, fought like heck to make sure that the human beings who were harmed by those corporate actions didn't get a penny. Sounds like a great plan to restore trust in the university.


Idol Lash said...

The research comes nearly two several weeks after Penn Condition was rocked by a kid sex-abuse scandal regarding former protecting adviser.

Michael S. Altus, PhD, ELS said...

For more about Vioxx and Merck, read Poison Pills: The Untold Story of the Vioxx Drug Scandal, by Tom Nesi. 2008, St. Martin's Press, New York.