Madison County vs. Big Pharma

The Madison County Record Nov. 28, 2004, 10:43am

Surely it is not the intention of 75 year-old Glen Carbon resident Patricia Bilbrey to stop development of a vaccine that would cure cancer.

But her class action lawsuit alleging Merck ‘misled’ her over its pain reliever Vioxx, one of four filed against the drug maker in Madison County Circuit Court this year, in part threatens to do just that.

Merck has created a cervical cancer vaccine that, reportedly, proved completely effective in a four-year trial including more than 2000 patients.

If Ms. Bilbrey and the others suing Merck are successful, that cancer vaccine won’t make it to market anytime soon. Likewise, the future of other Merck drugs for high blood pressure, osteoporosis, asthma, and high cholesterol will slide into jeopardy.

That’s because a bankrupted Merck will become ‘property’ of Vioxx-using plaintiffs and their trial lawyers.

We paint this picture because it provides an instructive metaphor of the risk-benefit balance that defines the deeds of our pharmaceutical industry.

That balance—particularly in Madison County, where 10 class action lawsuits against drug makers Merck, Pfizer, Bayer, Bristol Meyers Squibb, and GlaxoSmithKline have already been filed in 2004-- is too often misunderstood.

The wonders of our most remarkable new drugs only come with side effects—some plain as day, others unknown until a product stands the test of time.

In the case of Vioxx, for patients with severe arthritis or internal bleeding and ulcers, the trade-off was an elevated risk of heart disease. Merck discovered this after the fact itself in an internal study and decided to take the drug off the market.

This new stated risk remains one that many Vioxx users, saved from their potentially lethal gastrointestinal problems, would still be glad to take. But these users aren’t the ones suing.

The Merck pile-on over Vioxx is, in our view, a national tragedy made up of local angles.

Ms. Bilbrey, Earl Gori, Michael Elward, Myrna Amish, and the other plaintiffs suing Merck in our court all want to get theirs today.

The rest of us will deal with the public health aftermath tomorrow.

If this sounds alarmist, consider how the seeds of today’s familiar ‘tomorrow’ were sown a decade ago, when billion-dollar lawsuits drove most U.S. vaccine makers out of business.

Thus in 2004, with the crime scene far in our collective rearview mirror, Americans looked to find fault when they couldn’t get a shot of vaccine for the flu.

The trial lawyer culprits, to be sure, are still enterprising ways to enrich themselves while killing our golden goose.

Think there will be a cure for cancer in your lifetime?

Let’s not forget that these lawsuits have side effects, too.

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