The head of pharmaceutical giant Merck says that the company’s ethical code will help it pull through the greatest crisis in its history. Merck’s star drug Vioxx, which generated annual sales of US$2.5 billion, was withdrawn from the market two months ago after evidence accumulated that it was increasing the risk of heart attacks or strokes. It was the largest product withdrawal in the history of the industry and wiped about $40 billion off the value of the company. Although Merck’s CEO and chairman, Ray Gilmartin, denies it, industry sources say that pressure is building up for a merger, perhaps with Schering-Plough.
A number of doctors and researchers now claim that the company knew how dangerous the drug was for years before the withdrawal, a charge which Merck denies. The US Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation and the Securities and Exchange Commission, the US financial regulator, is conducting an informal inquiry. Nonetheless, Mr Gilmartin believes that Merck acted ethically at all times. His first thought from the moment that he became aware of problems with the drug, he insists, was for the safety of patients. He is confident that Merck will be exonerated and seen to be consistent with the words of George Merck, son of the founder, 50 years ago: “medicine is for the people, not for the profits. If we remember that, the profits will follow.”
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