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Heated Exchanges In Vioxx Trial

GENERIC Merck Vioxx trial gavel
AP / ABC News
Merck & Co.'s former top scientist in charge of Vioxx studies bristled repeatedly Friday when pressed about whether the pharmaceutical giant's eye was on its bottom line in rushing the once-lucrative drug to market.

Dr. Alan Nies, testifying as Merck began its defense in the nation's first Vioxx-related civil trial, insisted the New Jersey company wasn't in a race with Pfizer's Celebrex. He grew angry when questioned about his own written 1996 Vioxx product development plan that said Merck was concerned about a "significant negative impact" on financial projections if Celebrex made it into medicine cabinets first.

In a bruising cross-examination, plaintiff's lawyer Mark Lanier showed jurors where the document said Merck could lose up to $611 million in potential revenues if Vioxx lagged behind Pfizer's goal of selling Celebrex by late 1998, allowing the competitor to snag critical market share.

"You wanted to get the drug out for the money?" Lanier demanded, his voice raised.

"Not me!" Nies snapped. He told Lanier he knew nothing about "financial modeling" at Merck, and then conceded that his product development plan had a marketing aspect.

"Six hundred and eleven million dollars is the value of being first rather than second?" Lanier demanded a few minutes later.

"You don't have to yell at me; I can hear you," Nies snapped.

"I don't mean to yell at you, I just wanted to make sure Mrs. Ernst can hear you," Lanier said, gesturing toward plaintiff Carol Ernst, who is suing Merck over the 2001 death of her husband.

"So the reason y'all are rushing to market is for the almighty dollar" and to help pain sufferers like Robert Ernst, Lanier asked.

"Those two things go hand in hand. If you get the drug out earlier, it will help more people," Nies said.

Merck pulled Vioxx from the market last year when a study showed it could double risk of heart attacks or strokes if taken for 18 months or longer. Robert Ernst died in his sleep after taking Vioxx for eight months to ease pain in his hands.