New Merck Allegations: A Fake Journal; Ghostwritten Studies; Vioxx Pop Songs; PR Execs Harass Reporters

Last Updated Apr 23, 2009 4:05 PM EDT

Federal prosecutors in the U.S. will be reading with amusement the Australian press's coverage of a class action trial down under for patients who took Merck's now-withdrawn painkiller Vioxx.

Details emerging in Oz make some of the antics that Merck's American counterparts got up to look tame by comparison. For example, in Australia, Merck allegedly:
  • Had a doctor sign his name to an entirely ghostwritten journal article even though a Merck staffer had complained that the data within it was based on "wishful thinking."
  • Created a fake "peer-reviewed" journal, the "Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine," in which to publicize pro-Vioxx articles.
  • Created a Ricky Martin-style pop song to get Merck sales reps all jazzed up about Vioxx (lyrics below!).
  • During the trial, Merck has employed an unusually aggressive set of PR consultants, some of whom have even followed reporters into the bathroom to make sure they got the story "right."
  • Hatched a Blackadder-style "cunning plan" to seed seminars with speakers who were sympathetic to Vioxx but under instructions not to mention the brand name too often.
Regarding the "wishful thinking" study, The Age reports on these emails turned over in the trial:

Email from Merck senior researcher Briggs Morrison, August 2001:
"That seems wishful thinking, not a critical interpretation of the data ... The data appears to have been interpreted to support a preconceived hypothesis."
The claim was nonetheless included in the final version of the article, which Merck employees sent to US cardiologist Dr Marv Konstam for approval.
Dr Konstam was named as the article's lead author when it was published in the medical journal Circulation in October 2001
The Australian describes the fake journal. And The Age notes that the journal was "designed to resemble a peer-reviewed publication and reprinted previously published articles."

Here are the utterly priceless lyrics to two songs Merck had composed celebrating Vioxx. (Please, somebody send a soundfile of these songs to jimedwards123 at hotmail dot com, thanks.) The "Ricky Martin-type" song was titled "Go Vioxx":
His life was changed through Vioxx/He'll be jumping' round for joy till/A doctor tries to write a script for/Some old non-steroidal ...
Sell Vioxx for me baby/Sell Vioxx for me baby/Sell Vioxx for me baby/Sell Vioxx for me baby!
Another song is a "Paul Kelly-style rock song" (Kelly is an Australian pop star).
"I used to dream of the days/When I climbed any mountain/Or walked all the way to St Kilda from town/But time marched on and left me with this/Pain and inflammation/The best days of my life just seemed to/Fade and bring me down. Vioxx you gave me a chance to start over/And now the best days are here to stay."
Here's The Australian's description of the Merck PR team's over-the-top "handling" of reporters at the trial:
... a hired crisis management team sits in court every day, under the guidance of Merck & Co's media spokeswoman flown out from the US, watching what journalists write, who they talk to and where they go in the court breaks.

The team from prominent media relations firm Kreab & Gavin Anderson follow journalists out of court, ask them what they are writing, hand out daily press releases and send "background" emails they say should not be attributed to the company but which detail what they think are the "salient points" from the evidence presented in court.
The team rings reporters first thing in the morning, accuses them of "cherry-picking" the evidence and bombards newspapers with letters to the editor arguing their case in detail based on the day's evidence - five were sent to The Australian in just seven days.

Last night, The Australian received a sixth letter - signed by Colin Loveday, a partner from Merck's law firm, Clayton Utz.

At one point, they were spotted looking over the shoulders of journalists at their notepads.
In one instance, on April 17, the press contingent in court was effectively surrounded. Mr Maher sat in front of the reporters, Ms Stavropoulos behind and Mr van Maanen a few seats away to the right
Merck's efforts to monitor journalists bordered on the absurd - one of their team was seen to follow me out of court as I left for a toilet break.
Finally, the trial has showed evidence that Merck staff were fans of the show Blackadder, in which Rowan Atkinson usually becomes caught in a trap of his own making but invariably hatches a "cunning plan" to escape.

1999 email from Merck associate product manager Russell Powter to senior regulatory affairs associate Warren Back:
"Hi Warren (do people call you Wozza?), We have a plan, a cunning plan ... Yes, it is a cocky idea, but I want to know if it will be a foolish idea. There will be no mention of Vioxx ... in any of the materials and the speaker will be just an American with real experience. BUT does this hurt the approval process from your point of view? Are there any things we should be cautious about?"
June 4, 1999, reponse from Back to Powter:
"Yes, people do call me Wazza ... I have discussed your cunning plan with Judith. We both feel that it should be OK ... so long as the presentation is not totally biased, both rofecoxib and celecoxib are mentioned together... and the trade name use is kept to an absolute minimum, then there should be no regulatory issues."
Hat tip to Pharmagossip.

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