Merck & Co – Merck History, Products & Controversy

About Merck & Co.

Merck & Co. is an American pharmaceutical company which produces some of the most well-known drugs in the pharmaceutical business, as well as consumer health products. Outside of the U.S., the company is known as Merck Sharp & Dohme but is unrelated to the German company, Merck Group KGaA.

Merck & Co. is America’s second-largest pharmaceutical company and in 2019 made approximately $46.8 billion in revenue. The company is based in New Jersey and employs about 71,000 people.

Some Merck products have resulted in thousands of lawsuits due to severe injury or death caused by medications like Vioxx, Fosamax and Januvia.

The History of Merck & Co.

Merck & Co. first got its start in Germany in 1668 when its founder, Friedrich Jacob Merck, bought an apothecary in Darmstadt, Germany to start his business as Engel-Apotheke. Nearly one-hundred and fifty years later, in 1827, Heinrich Emmanuel Merck converts the then pharmacy into a drug manufacturing facility as E. Merck.

The first products that were sold by the facility were morphine, codeine, and cocaine. A U.S. division was opened in 1891 as Merck of Darmstadt., with a manufacturing facility founded in 1902 in New Jersey.

In 1917, the U.S. division of Merck was Nationalized by the U.S. government and set up as a separate company in post WWI reconstruction. The German company of Merck is known as Merck KGaA but has no financial stake or affiliation with Merck & Co. due to separations imposed by WWI and WWII.

In 1953, Merck acquired a Philadelphia drug company, Sharp & Dohme, to become the largest U.S. drug manufacturer at the time and is still known as Merck, Sharp & Dohme outside of the U.S. Merck & Co. worked with other major pharmaceutical companies through the 1980s and 1990s, such as Astra AB, Johnson & Johnson, Schering-Plough and Zeneca.

Merck & Co. merged with Schering-Plough in 2009, giving them access to brand name consumer products like Coppertone and Dr. Scholl’s and has since acquired a large number of smaller companies to remain as the second-largest pharmaceutical company in the U.S.

Merck Publishing

Merck & Co. has played a notable role in current affairs throughout its history. In 1889, Merck & Co. first published what is known as the Merck Index. The Merck Index is an encyclopedia of chemicals, drugs, and biological information for use by health care professionals and scientists. It has also published other references including The Merck Manual (1899) and The Merck Veterinary Manual and other textbooks still in use today.

In 2009, during the Vioxx scandal, Merck was exposed for fraudulent publishing. It was discovered that the Australian division of the company had paid Elsevier, a medical publishing platform an undisclosed amount to produce eight issues of a fraudulent medical journal. The publication was called “Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine” which appeared to be a legitimate, peer-reviewed journal.

The journal was found to have reprinted Merck-friendly articles but never disclosed that it was a sponsored publication. The CEO of Elsevier later apologized, admitting that the practices were false and should never have been allowed.

Merck & Co. Products

Merck & Co. produces several different kinds of medications and other medical products. They have manufactured over-the-counter medications like asthma and allergy medication as well as vaccines and diabetic medication for animals. Some notable products include sunscreen, hair-growth medication Propecia, antihistamine Claritin, and HPV vaccine Gardasil.

Merck & Co. first manufactured legacy medications like morphine and codeine but became an early producer of vaccines and infectious disease treatment. The company produced the first commercial smallpox vaccine in the U.S and provided 4.18 billion units of penicillin, the first successful antibiotic during WWII.

After a number of years working on the discovery of vitamins, MSD scientists invented a method to synthesize Vitamin B12 in 1936. The company isolated and produced a number of other vitamins as well, becoming very profitable in therapeutics and animal feed.

Merck was first with many childhood vaccines including Mumps, Rubella, Trivalent MMR, Hep B, and Varicella (chicken pox) and important in other “firsts” as well including:

  • First diuretic for hypertension
  • First HIV medication
  • First Statin cholesterol-lowering medication
  • First cervical cancer vaccine

In a philanthropic effort, Merck & Co. was one of the first pharmaceutical companies to offer Patient Assistance Programs for patients who cannot afford their name brand products.

Current notable Merck products include:

  • Clarinex
  • Fosamax
  • Implanon
  • NuvaRing
  • Januvia / Janumet
  • Keytruda
  • Propecia / Proscar
  • Proventil
  • Singulair
  • Zocor
  • Intron A
  • Gardasil
  • MMR
  • Pneumovax
  • Recombivax HB
  • RotaTeq
  • Varivax
  • Zostavax
  • Erbevo (Ebola Vaccine)

Merck & Co. Controversies and Lawsuits

Because of Merck’s long history in the U.S. and the vast number of products produced, the company has faced thousands of lawsuits. Some of the other drugs that have led to litigation against Merck & Co. include:

  • Fosamax
  • Januvia
  • Nuvaring
  • Propecia
  • Zostavax
  • Gardasil

In the last decade or so, Merck & Co. has paid out over $4.85 billion in judgements and settlements for lawsuits regarding Vioxx, including one $950 million settlement and millions of dollars for lawsuits, settlements and penalties related to other drugs. Some lawsuits have been dismissed but many may still remain in open courts.

Vioxx Scandal

The most well-known corporate scandal involving Merck & Co. is the Vioxx scandal. Vioxx was once a leading pharmaceutical pain treatment used for diseases like osteoarthritis. Like other Cox-2 inhibitors, Vioxx was linked to heart attack and death in some users and the company was accused of concealing risks of the medication.

Merck faced thousands of Vioxx lawsuits and has paid over $4.85 billion in settlements, fines and other payments for drug injury and criminal liabilities due to Vioxx.  The medication was recalled in 2004 and most cases were settled as part of a group settlement offer in 2008, however some non-injury agreements have yet to be met regarding securities and stockholder misconduct.

Fosamax Lawsuits

Osteoporosis medication, Fosamax (alendronate) was known to cause gastrointestinal problems and worsen certain other health conditions. Patients have reported experiencing problems of the esophagus such as trouble swallowing (dysphagia), and gastritis (digestive irritation) and may develop esophageal erosion due to gastric reflux.

Although Fosamax is intended to prevent bone loss, the medication may cause a loss of bone density. Patients reported bone fractures, and some developed a condition known as osteonecrosis of the jaw (ONJ) which caused in a loss of jawbone tissue.

Hundreds of lawsuits were filed, claiming that Merck knew about the dangers of Fosamax and though many of the lawsuits were dismissed, court battles are still ongoing including a Supreme Court judgment which directed the lower courts reconsider a ruling that allowed lawsuits to go to trial. Attempts to add warnings to the Fosamax label have been largely rejected by the FDA and the drug remains available in both brand name and generic form.

Januvia and Janumet Lawsuits

Januvia (sitagliptin) is a newer medication for treating type 2 diabetes. It gained FDA approval in 2006 but like similar medications, has caused many different health problems for patients. A related medication, Janumet, is a combination of sitagliptin and metformin and may also be responsible for a number of injuries.

By 2011, over 200 patients had reported cases of pancreatitis as a result of Januvia. About 10 to 30 percent of these cases were fatal. Since then, hundreds of patients have reported pancreatic cancer and pancreatic disorder and patients, and their families have filed suit for compensation of these cases.

Januvia/Janumet lawsuits were combined with similar sglt2 medications, Byetta and Victoza lawsuits into a multidistrict litigation against Merck & Co. to help move through the cases more efficiently. No settlements have been announced for any of the medications.

Zostavax and Gardasil Lawsuits

Vaccine compensation for injuries falls under federal jurisdiction and compensated by federal funding, however a number of claims of drug injury and others of ineffectiveness are still under consideration for Merck vaccines Zostavax and Gardasil.

One family may have met the “burden of proof” for HPV vaccine, Gardasil injury or death and appears to be advancing in the court system while others have been compensated by the U.S. government as part of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

Lawsuits against Zostavax claim that instead of protecting patients against the Varicella Zoster virus, the vaccine caused them to develop a more severe infection resulting in painful blisters, scarring and nerve damage. No settlements have yet been decided but the number of lawsuits appears to be growing and may reach into the hundreds.