Already embroiled in a scandal over fake scientific journals it funded to promote its products, pharma giant Merck & Co. is now the subject of a law suit alleging that it misled customers into charging too much for prescriptions of cholesterol pills.
Also named in the suit over medications Zetia and Vytorin was Schering-Plough Corp., which Merck bought in March.
The companies have known for years -- and failed to make public -- that Zetia doesn’t reduce fatty arterial plaques that can cause heart attacks and strokes, according to the complaint filed June 5 in Philadelphia federal court. The suit, brought by the Pennsylvania Employees Benefit Trust Fund, seeks to recoup more than $9 million spent on the two drugs since October 2002.
“Merck and Schering-Plough entered into, and through various overt acts implemented, an agreement between themselves to illegally promote Vytorin and Zetia,” lawyers for the fund said in the complaint.
Sales of Zetia and Vytorin fell 12 percent last year to $4.5 billion after two studies showed the pills may work no better at unclogging arteries than does an older, cheaper medicine called simvastatin. Vytorin combines Zetia and Merck’s simvastatin, a statin-class drug the Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based company markets as Zocor.
Merck and Schering-Plough developed Vytorin to help further the profitable life of Zocor, which lost its patent protection in June 2006, according to the complaint. Generic Zocor alone costs 3 cents a pill compared to about $3 a pill for Vytorin, the complaint said.
“We believe the companies acted responsibly and appropriately and we intend to defend this lawsuit vigorously,” Ron Rogers, a spokesman for Merck, said today in a phone interview.
Schering-Plough spokesman Lee Davies said that company hasn’t yet been served with a copy of the complaint but plans to defend itself.
“Vytorin and Zetia have been shown to reduce LDL- cholesterol based on numerous clinical studies, and they have been approved by the FDA for that indication,” Davies said in an e-mailed statement.
The companies allegedly “suppressed” the results of a January 2008 study called Enhance that showed the drugs worked no better at clearing arteries than the generic drug simvastatin, according to the complaint. The companies also used false and deceptive marketing techniques claiming Vytorin was more efficacious than and just as safe as the much cheaper generic, the complaint said.
Meanwhile, according to Forbes magazine, Merck is facing "new questions about the company's drug development prowess" after its hoped-for next big heart drug rolofylline came back with disappointing results from clinical trials.