Rofecoxib gained widespread acceptance among physicians treating patients with arthritis and other conditions causing chronic or acute pain. Worldwide, over 80 million people were prescribed rofecoxib at some time.
On September 30, 2004, Merck voluntarily withdrew rofecoxib from the market because of concerns about increased risk of heart attack and stroke associated with long-term, high-dosage use. Rofecoxib was one of the most widely used drugs ever to be withdrawn from the market. In the year before withdrawal, Merck had sales revenue of US$2.5 billion from Vioxx.
Rofecoxib was available on prescription as tablets and as an oral suspension.
Others include Merck's etoricoxib (Arcoxia), Pfizer’s celecoxib (Celebrex) and valdecoxib (Bextra). Interestingly, at the time of its withdrawal, rofecoxib was the only coxib with clinical evidence of its superior gastrointestinal adverse effect profile over conventional NSAIDs. This was largely based on the VIGOR (Vioxx GI Outcomes Research) study, which compared the efficacy and adverse effect profiles of rofecoxib and naproxen.
Aside from the reduced incidence of gastric ulceration, rofecoxib exhibits a similar adverse effect profile to other NSAIDs. Rofecoxib, however, does appear to increase the risk of adverse cardiovascular events.
The chief mechanism proposed to explain rofecoxib's cardiotoxicity is the suppression of prostacyclin, an anti-clotting agent in the blood (Fitzgerald, 2004). COX-2 plays a role in the production of prostacyclin. Because Vioxx inhibits the COX-2 enzyme, prostacyclin production can decrease in endothelial cells and lead to an inefficiency in declumping and vasodilatation. Merck, however, argues that there was no effect on prostacyclin production in blood vessels in animal testing. Other researchers have speculated that the cardiotoxicity may be associated with maleic anhydride metabolites formed when rofecoxib becomes ionized under physiological conditions. (Reddy & Corey, 2005)
Merck's scientists interpreted the finding as a protective effect of naproxen, telling the FDA that the difference in heart attacks "is primarily due to" this protective effect (Targum, 2001). Some commentators have noted that naproxen would have to be three times as effective as aspirin to account for all of the difference (Michaels 2005), and some outside scientists warned Merck that this claim was implausible before VIGOR was published No evidence has since emerged for such a large cardioprotective effect of naproxen, although a number of studies have found protective effects similar in size to those of aspirin (Karha and Topol, 2004; Solomon et al., 2002). Though Dr. Topol's 2004 paper criticized Merck's naproxen hypothesis, he himself co-authored a 2001 JAMA article stating "because of the evidence for an antiplatelet effect of naproxen, it is difficult to assess whether the difference in cardiovascular event rates in VIGOR was due to a benefit from naproxen or to a prothrombotic effect from rofecoxib." (Mukherjee, Nissen and Topol, 2001.)
The results of the VIGOR study were submitted to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in February 2001, which led to the introduction, in April 2002, of warnings on Vioxx labelling concerning the increased risk of cardiovascular events (heart attack and stroke).
Months after the preliminary version of VIGOR was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the journal editors learned that certain data reported to the FDA was not included in the NEJM article. Several years later, when they were shown a Merck memo during the depositions for the first federal Vioxx trial, they realized that this data had been available to the authors months before publication. The editors wrote an editorial accusing the authors of deliberately withholding the data. They released the editorial to the media on December 8, 2005, before giving the authors a chance to respond. NEJM editor Gregory Curfman explained that the quick release was due to the imminent presentation of his deposition testimony, which he feared would be misinterpreted in the media. He had earlier denied any relationship between the timing of the editorial and the trial. Although his testimony was not actually used in the December trial, Curfman had testified well before the publication of the editorial.
The editors charged that "more than four months before the article was published, at least two of its authors were aware of critical data on an array of adverse cardiovascular events that were not included in the VIGOR article." This additional data included three additional heart attacks, and raised the relative risk of Vioxx from 4.25-fold to 5-fold. All the additional heart attacks occurred in the group at low risk of heart attack (the "aspirin not indicated" group) and the editors noted that the omission "resulted in the misleading conclusion that there was a difference in the risk of myocardial infarction between the aspirin indicated and aspirin not indicated groups." The relative risk for myocardial infarctions among the aspirin not indicated patients increased from 2.25 to 3 (although it remained statitistically insignificant). The editors also noted a statistically significant (2-fold) increase in risk for serious thromboembolic events for this group, an outcome that Merck had not reported in the NEJM, though it had disclosed that information publicly in March 2000, eight months before publication.
The authors of the study, including the non-Merck authors, responded by claiming that the three additional heart attacks had occurred after the prespecified cutoff date for data collection and thus were appropriately not included. (Utilizing the prespecified cutoff date also meant that an additional stroke in the naproxen population was not reported.) Furthermore, they said that the additional data did not qualitatively change any of the conclusions of the study, and the results of the full analyses were disclosed to the FDA and reflected on the Vioxx warning label. They further noted that all of the data in the "omitted" table was printed in the text of the article. The authors stood by the original article. (Bombardier et al., 2006).
NEJM stood by its editorial, noting that the cutoff date was never mentioned in the article, nor did the authors report that the cutoff for cardiovascular adverse events was before that for gastrointestinal adverse events. The different cutoffs increased the reported benefits of Vioxx (reduced stomach problems) relative to the risks (increased heart attacks).
Some scientists have accused the NEJM editorial board of making unfounded accusations. , Others have applauded the editorial. Renowned research cardiologist Eric Topol , a prominent Merck critic, accused Merck of "manipulation of data" and said "I think now the scientific misconduct trial is really fully backed up" Phil Fontanarosa, executive editor of the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, welcomed the editorial, saying "this is another in the long list of recent examples that have generated real concerns about trust and confidence in industry-sponsored studies"
On May 15, 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported that a late night email, written by an outside public relations specialist and sent to Journal staffers hours before the Expression of Concern was released, predicted that "the rebuke would divert attention to Merck and induce the media to ignore the New England Journal of Medicine's own role in aiding Vioxx sales."
"Internal emails show the New England Journal's expression of concern was timed to divert attention from a deposition in which Executive Editor Gregory Curfman made potentially damaging admissions about the journal's handling of the Vioxx study. In the deposition, part of the Vioxx litigation, Dr. Curfman acknowledged that lax editing might have helped the authors make misleading claims in the article." The Journal stated that NEJM's "ambiguous" language misled reporters into incorrectly believing that Merck had deleted data regarding the three additional heart attacks, rather than a blank table that contained no statistical information; "the New England Journal says it didn't attempt to have these mistakes corrected."
The APPROVe study was terminated early when the preliminary data from the study showed an increased relative risk of adverse thrombotic cardiovascular events (including heart attack and stroke), beginning after 18 months of rofecoxib therapy. In patients taking rofecoxib, versus placebo, the relative risk of these events was 1.92 (rofecoxib 1.50 events vs placebo 0.78 events per 100 patient years). The results from the first 18 months of the APPROVe study did not show an increased relative risk of adverse cardiovascular events. Moreover, overall and cardiovascular mortality rates were similar between the rofecoxib and placebo populations.
In summary, the APPROVe study suggested that long-term use of rofecoxib resulted in nearly twice the risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke compared to patients receiving a placebo.
Several very large observational studies have also found elevated risk of heart attack from rofecoxib. For example, a recent retrospective study of 113,000 elderly Canadians suggested a borderline statistically significant increased relative risk of heart attacks of 1.24 from Vioxx usage, with a relative risk of 1.73 for higher-dose Vioxx usage. (Levesque, 2005). Another study, using Kaiser Permanente data, found a 1.47 relative risk for low-dose Vioxx usage and 3.58 for high-dose Vioxx usage compared to current use of celecoxib, though the smaller number was not statistically significant, and relative risk compared to other populations was not statistically significant. (Graham, 2005).
Furthermore, a more recent meta-study of 114 randomized trials with a total of 116,000+ participants, published in JAMA, showed that Vioxx uniquely increased risk of renal (kidney) disease, and heart arrhythmia. COX-2 Inhibitor Drug Review of adverse renal and arrhythmia risk, in JAMA 2006
Nevertheless, it is likely that trials of newer drugs in the category will be extended in order to supply additional evidence of cardiovascular safety. Examples are some more specific COX-2 inhibitors, including etoricoxib (Arcoxia) and lumiracoxib (Prexige), which are currently (circa 2005) undergoing Phase III/IV clinical trials.
Besides, regulatory authorities worldwide now require warnings about cardiovascular risk of COX-2 inhibitors still on the market. For example, in 2005, EU regulators required the following changes to the product information and/or packaging of all COX-2 inhibitors :
In addition to its own studies, on September 23, 2004 Merck apparently received information about new research by the FDA that supported previous findings of increased risk of heart attack among rofecoxib users (Grassley, 2004). FDA analysts estimated that Vioxx caused between 88,000 and 139,000 heart attacks, 30 to 40 percent of which were probably fatal, in the five years the drug was on the market.
On November 5 the medical journal The Lancet published a meta-analysis of the available studies on the safety of rofecoxib (Jüni et al., 2004). The authors concluded that, owing to the known cardiovascular risk, rofecoxib should have been withdrawn several years earlier. The Lancet published an editorial which condemned both Merck and the FDA for the continued availability of rofecoxib from 2000 until the recall. Merck responded by issuing a rebuttal of the Jüni et al. meta-analysis that noted that Juni omitted several studies that showed no increased cardiovascular risk. (Merck & Co., 2004).
In 2005, advisory panels in both the U.S. and Canada encouraged the return of rofecoxib to the market, stating that rofecoxib's benefits outweighed the risks for some patients. The FDA advisory panel voted 17-15 to allow the drug to return to the market despite being found to increase heart risk. The vote in Canada was 12-1, and the Canadian panel noted that the cardiovascular risks from rofecoxib seemed to be no worse than those from ibuprofen -- though the panel recommended that further study was needed for all NSAIDs to fully understand their risk profiles. Notwithstanding these recommendations, Merck has not returned rofecoxib to the market.
As of March 2006, there had been over 10,000 cases and 190 class actions filed against Merck over adverse cardiovascular events associated with rofecoxib and the adequacy of Merck's warnings. The first wrongful death trial, Rogers v. Merck, was scheduled in Alabama in the spring of 2005, but was postponed after Merck argued that the plaintiff had falsified evidence of rofecoxib use.
On August 19, 2005, a jury in Texas voted 10-2 to hold Merck liable for the death of Robert Ernst, a 59-year old man who allegedly died of a rofecoxib-induced heart attack. The plaintiffs' lead attorney was Mark Lanier. Merck argued that the death was due to cardiac arrhythmia, which had not been shown to be associated with rofecoxib use. The jury awarded Carol Ernst, widow of Robert Ernst, $253.4 million in damages. This award will almost certainly be capped at no more than USD$26.1 million because of punitive damages limits under Texas law. As of March 2006, the plaintiff had yet to ask the court to enter a judgment on the verdict; Merck has stated that it will appeal.
On November 3, 2005, Merck won the second case Humeston v. Merck, a personal injury case, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The plaintiff experienced a mild myocardial infarction and claimed that rofecoxib was responsible, after having taken it for two months. Merck argued that there was no evidence that rofecoxib was the cause of Humeston's injury and that there is no scientific evidence linking rofecoxib to cardiac events with short durations of use. The jury ruled that Merck had adequately warned doctors and patients of the drug's risk.
The first federal trial on rofecoxib, Plunkett v. Merck, began on November 29, 2005 in Houston, Texas. The trial ended in a hung jury and a mistrial was declared on December 12, 2005. According to the Wall Street Journal, the jury hung by an eight to one majority, favoring the defense. Upon retrial in February 2006 in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the Vioxx multidistrict litigation (MDL) is based, a jury found Merck not liable, even though the plaintiffs had the NEJM editor testify as to his objections to the VIGOR study.
On January 30, 2006, a New Jersey state court dismissed a case brought by Edgar Lee Boyd, who blamed Vioxx for gastrointestinal bleeding that he experienced after taking the drug. The judge said that Boyd failed to prove the drug caused his stomach pain and internal bleeding.
In January 2006, Garza v. Merck began trial in Rio Grande City, Texas. The plaintiff, a 71-year-old smoker with heart disease, had a fatal heart attack three weeks after finishing a one-week sample of rofecoxib. On April 21, 2006 the jury awarded the plaintiff $7 million compensatory and $25 million punitive. The punitive amount will be reduced to under $1 million.
On April 5, 2006, the jury held Merck liable for the heart attack of 77-year-old John McDarby, and awarded Mr McDarby $4.5 million in compensatory damages based on Merck's failure to properly warn of Vioxx safety risks. After a hearing on April 11, 2006, the jury also awarded Mr McDarby an additional $9 million in punitive damages. The same jury found Merck not liable for the heart attack of 60-year-old Thomas Cona, a second plaintiff in the trial, but was liable for fraud in the sale of the drug to Cona.
Merck has reserved $970 million to pay for its Vioxx-related legal expenses through 2007, and have set aside $4.85bn for legal claims from US citizens. Patients who claim to have suffered as a result of taking Vioxx in countries outside the US are campaigning for this to be extended.
The recall and litigation over rofecoxib has provoked debate over drug safety in the United States. Some argue that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not do enough to monitor product safety and that the rofecoxib withdrawal is an argument against tort reform. It has also been argued that litigation is an imperfect means of regulation that would overdeter companies for complying with FDA requirements, and that large awards like that in Ernst would inhibit research and development.