NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Internal Merck & Co. e-mails and marketing materials show the drugmaker fought forcefully for years to keep safety concerns from destroying the sales of big-selling painkiller Vioxx, according to a published report.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the e-mails seen by the paper show that Merck executives were worried in the mid-to-late 1990's that Vioxx would show greater heart risk than cheaper painkillers that were harsh on the stomach but were believed to reduce the risk of heart attacks. The company pulled Vioxx off the market in September, citing increased cardiac risk.
The paper said that several company officials discussed in e-mails how to design a study that would minimize the finding that Vioxx had a higher heart attack risk than the cheaper drugs, even though some of those writing the e-mails believed that damaging comparisons would be difficult to conceal.
The paper reported that, in a March 9, 2000 e-mail, Merck research chief Edward Scolnick stated the cardiovascular events "are clearly there" and called it a "shame." The paper said he compared Vioxx to other drugs with known side effects and wrote, "there is always a hazard."
Merck continued to deny any link between heart attacks and Vioxx up until the announcement that the drug was being pulled from the market.
Merck faces lawsuits by those who suffered heart attacks after taking the drug, as well as from family members. The e-mails and documents reviewed by the Journal could hurt the company in those suits.
A lawyer representing Merck told the Journal the internal e-mails and marketing materials were "taken out of context" and "do not accurately represent the conduct of Merck and its employees." But the paper said the company did not provide additional material to place the damaging e-mails in context, citing the pending litigation.
Shares of Merck (Research), a component of the Dow Jones industrial average, lost more than 1 percent in trading in Frankfurt following the early-morning report.