T.A. Court Subpoenas Two Merck Scientists Who Allegedly Knew of Vioxx Dangers

The Tel Aviv District Court saw evidence yesterday in the class action suit against Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp., the manufacturer of the arthritis drug Vioxx. Two researchers allegedly admitted in e-mail correspondence that the company had known that long-term use of the drug increased the risk of heart disease and had continued to market it.

District Court vice president, Judge Drora Pilpel has asked the attorney general to have the two scientists subpoenaed.

On September 30, 2004, Merck announced it was recalling the drug in 50 countries, after a study it conducted showed that the risk of heart attack and stroke doubled in people using Vioxx for at least 18 months. Cases had been published prior to the study indicating high risk of heart attack among Vioxx users, but the manufacturers had rejected the information.

Later in 2004, six patients submitted a class action suit in the Tel Aviv District Court in the name of Israeli Vioxx users, calling for compensation for "those who used the drug over the past four years and paid good money to ingest a drug which, in retrospect, turned out to be defective and dangerous."

The drug began to be marketed in Israel in 1999, and until the recall, the suit estimates that between 15,000 to 75,000 Israelis took the drug each year.

The two American scientists who exchanged the allegedly damaging e-mail are Dr. Edward Scolnick, former Merck research chief who left the company in 2002, and Dr. Briggs Morrison, a former Merck senior scientist, who left the company in 2007.

The request has been made to subpoena the two scientists as part of a hearing on whether to recognize the suit as a class-action.

The e-mails, starting in 1997, allegedly indicate that Merck was aware of the risks of long-term Vioxx use, and allegedly slanted scientific articles to conceal the fact.

Representatives of Merck Sharpe & Dohme in Israel said the hearing on the request to approve the suit as a class action is at a very early phase. Merck also said it was certain that the court will realize that firm acted responsibly from the research and development phase through its approval for use by the Health Ministry and the ministry's supervision while the drug was on the market, and ending with the decision to take the drug off the shelves.