In 2000, amid rising concerns that its painkiller Vioxx posed heart risks, Merck overruled one of its own scientists after he suggested that a patient in a clinical trial had probably died of a heart attack.
In an e-mail exchange about Vioxx, the company’s most important new drug at the time, a senior Merck scientist repeatedly urged the researcher to change his views about the death “so that we don’t raise concerns.” In later reports to the Food and Drug Administration and in a paper published in 2003, Merck listed the cause of death as “unknown” for the patient, a 73-year-old woman.
The discussion of the death is contained in several previously undisclosed Merck records, including e-mail messages from Dr. Edward M. Scolnick, Merck’s top scientist from 1985 until 2002, and from Dr. Alise S. Reicin, a vice president for clinical research, that indicate Merck’s concerns about data contradicting its view that Vioxx was safe.
In one e-mail message, Dr. Scolnick said the drug trial that included the woman’s death had “put us in a terrible situation.” In others, he fiercely criticized the F.D.A. and said he would personally pressure senior officials at the agency if it took action unfavorable to Vioxx.