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Death of a Contraceptive: Merck's Nuvaring Faces 300 Lawsuits

Merck (MRK)'s Nuvaring contraceptive appears to be headed for the same fate as Bayer (BAY)'s Yaz pill and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ)'s Ortho Evra contraceptive patch: It's becoming a pinata for plaintiffs' lawyers who allege the device is more dangerous than older, equally effective products on the market.

I noted that there were 100 pending suits against Schering-Plough (the company that owned Nuvaring when Merck acquired it) in May last year. Since then, the litigation has ballooned -- according to this lawyer at least 300 cases are now pending in a multi-district litigation bloc in Missouri federal court.

You'd never have known how serious the litigation is from Merck's annual report. Although the company disclosed that it had been sued, all it said regarding the scale was:

The majority of the cases are currently pending in a federal Multidistrict litigation venued in Missouri and in New Jersey state court.
Last year, Nuvaring -- a hormone-releasing ring worn inside the vagina -- only produced $88 million in sales. That means the potential cost of defending and/or settling the suits could easily become larger than the franchise's revenues. It also makes the brand small potatoes inside the massive Merck machine.

A similar scenario happened at J&J, which ended up settling en masse against those who had sued over the patch. J&J no longer actively markets the product as a result.

The claims against Nuvaring are similar to those against the patch: Because the device delivers a constant stream of hormone unmediated by the digestive system or the liver, patients end up getting higher doses than they do from older pills. High estrogen doses create a greater risk of blood clots, which can be fatal.

Bayer has the worst problem: Its Yaz pill is the company's biggest money maker. Plaintiffs allege that its new formulation has a greater risk of blood clots than older generic pills.


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