Vioxx Trial Under Way in Houston

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A federal court Tuesday heard opening arguments from the pharmaceutical company Merck and from the widow of a Florida man who died after taking the painkiller Vioxx. Each side sketched out different pictures of how the drug was developed and marketed.


A federal Vioxx trial is under way in Houston. In opening statements, lawyers for the two sides sketched out different pictures of how Vioxx was developed and marketed and what role, if any, that drug played in the death of a Florida man. His widow is the plaintiff in this case. Now there are numerous Vioxx cases in numerous courts, and so far as far as judgments the score is even. The plaintiff won the first case, Merck, the drugmaker, won the second case, and now NPR's Snigdha Prakash reports on yesterday's proceedings in the third case.


It wasn't yet lunchtime when the plaintiff's lawyer, Andy Birchfield, began his hourlong opening statement. Birchfield stood near the jury box and spoke without notes in soft and serious tones directly to the jury. From time to time, he projected slides onto a giant screen, showing the time line of Vioxx's development. Birchfield told jurors that the evidence would show that Merck, in his words, `put Vioxx on the market despite serious concerns.' He continued, `You'll see evidence of Merck's documents where they discussed problems even before it went on market, how it would cause clots and block arteries and cause the heart to beat like a bag of worms.'

Quoting from internal Merck e-mails, Birchfield said that as far back as 1996, Merck scientists knew that Vioxx could harm the heart and that many studies over the years confirmed those safety problems. `Why would Merck not warn doctors and patients?' Birchfield asked. `Was it an accident? No. That was Merck's marketing strategy.' He said Merck chose to hide Vioxx's risks so that it could keep selling Vioxx for its profits. `It was,' Birchfield argued, `a deliberate, premeditated financial decision. As a result,' Birchfield said, `53-year-old Dickie Irvin,' whom he described as strong and healthy, `had a heart attack and died in 2001 after taking 22 Vioxx pills in 24 days.'

After a short break for lunch, Merck's lawyer, Phil Beck, painted a very different picture of Irvin and of Merck. He told jurors Mr. Irvin's problem was not that he used Vioxx, but that he had coronary artery disease. He said, `Heart attacks are the leading cause of death in the US.' Beck said, `Lots of people who die from this cause are like Mr. Irvin, men in their 50s, men who are a little overweight, and men who don't get enough cardiac exercise.'

Beck described how Vioxx filled an important need when it was developed in the 1990s. Unlike aspirin, ibuprofen and other older painkillers, Vioxx was a new kind of painkiller that didn't eat away at the stomach's lining. He said, `Vioxx was thoroughly researched. Other than aspirin, Vioxx may have the distinction of being the most studied pain reliever in the history of the world.' Beck said, `Merck made all the study results available to the Food and Drug Administration, which ratified Vioxx's safety three times after the drug was initially approved in 1999.' He said none of the studies showed that Vioxx could cause heart problems with short-term use.

The jurors will have to sort through these competing narratives over the next two weeks. Two of them are high school teachers. One teaches mathematics, the other science. A third in the group is a chemical engineer. The trial continues today. Snigdha Prakash, NPR News, Houston.

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