Ethical Questions Continue to Surround Merck's Vioxx Probe

| About: Merck & (MRK)

Today’s Philadelphia Inquirer describes parts of the widely publicized 1700-page, $21 million report that clears Merck (NYSE:MRK) senior executives of wrongdoing during development and marketing of Vioxx. The report also singles out Philadelphia-area former Merck research executive Dr Louis Sherwood for criticism, apparently suggesting that Sherwood led a group of Merck employees in a scheme to silence key Merck critics in academia. The Inquirer describes their efforts as “not deliberate” [My question: How does one seek to silence critics in a non-deliberate way?]:

The outside investigators, including a former federal judge, said they had found only marginal infractions that were not deliberate, including efforts to “neutralize” some Vioxx skeptics led by a now-retired Merck executive, Louis M. Sherwood of Upper Gywnedd. It also faulted Merck for issuing news releases that omitted information about possible cardiovascular risks of Vioxx.…Sherwood, reached at his home, defended himself and said he acted appropriately to straighten the record on Vioxx, which he considered a safe drug. “I’m disappointed to hear” about the report, Sherwood said, adding that he had not read it. He also suggested that his Merck superiors were aware of his actions and rejected the notion that he was a rogue executive doing something against company policy. "There was good communication throughout" the company, Sherwood said.

Dr. Sherwood is president of The Academy of Pharmaceutical Physicians and Investigators, an affiliate of the Association of Clinical Research Professionals. Sherwood’s alleged heavy-handed tactics came to light during the November 2004 Senate Finance Committee hearing testimony of Dr. Gurkirpal Singh, a Stanford professor who was critical of Merck’s handling of Vioxx. According to Dr. Singh’s testimony:

With VIGOR, suddenly it was as if the Company had to think what questions to answer. I persisted in my enquiries – and I was warned that if I continued in this fashion, there would be serious consequences for me. I was told that Dr. Louis Sherwood, a Merck senior vice-president, and a former Chief of Medicine at a medical school, had extensive contacts within the academia and could make life “very difficult” for me at Stanford and outside. But as a research scientist, I felt that it was unethical for me not to discuss my concerns in public. An open scientific debate was important – it is only through open debate and discussion that we advance science. Dr. Sherwood called several of my superiors at Stanford to complain. Subsequently, I learnt that this was a persistent pattern of intimidation by Dr. Sherwood. Professor Fries too felt that this suppression of scientific discussion was unethical and complained to Mr. Raymond Gilmartin. Mr. Gilmartin and Mr. David Anstice took immediate action, and the threats stopped immediately. From then onwards till today, Merck scientists and officials have treated me and my colleagues with appropriate respect and have always shared scientific data promptly.

This is not the type of behavior one usually expects from the leader of a physician group whose Code of Ethics “sets the standard of conduct and behavior for APPI members responsible for medical considerations in pharmaceutical and medical device research and development, and post-marketing product safety surveillance.” Interestingly, Sherwood took the office of APPI president in November 2005, about a year after Dr. Singh’s allegations were made. He continues in that role, along with the roles of Chairman and Trustee of APPI, according to the organization’s website.