Aussie Civil Suit Uncovers Fake Medical Journals

Dr. James Bertouch, chairman of rheumatology at Sydney's Prince of Wales Hospital, told of surprise and confusion at discovering his name on The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine to the Australian Federal Court on last week, according to reporting by The Australian.

The journals listed subscription charges, distribution to doctors and listed editorial staff, yet published no original content, did no new peer reviews, and printed no mention of Merck for several years of the publication. The journals also displayed the imprint of a branch of Elsevier, Excerpta Medica.

Elsevier, the world's largest publisher of medical journals, also reacted with anger at the news. "We think this practice is wrong and we're doing everything that we possibly can to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Tom Reller, director of corporate relations at Elsevier.

Reller said what was contained in the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine is usually found in so-called "article compilation products" -- essentially marketing materials printed to inform doctors about a specific topic.

"Article compilation products are quite common, but they have to disclose the sponsor and they shouldn't be called 'Journals of.' That absolutely should not have happened," said Reller.

Trying to Fix Drug-Company Influence Over Medicine

Elsevier has started a company-wide investigation of its 2,000 scientific journals and the much smaller commercial reprint division to see whether other fakes were published.

Merck, which has been inundated with suits over Vioxx, declined to elaborate on the journals, referring questions to Elsevier. Ronald Rogers, a Merck spokesman, said in an e-mail that "sometimes in high-visibility litigation, information is taken out of context and misstatements end up in the press."

The plaintiffs in the Australian class action suit have also entered into evidence an internal Merck document that lists leading doctors and researchers with notes on their potential for prescribing Vioxx or speaking about the drug. Pharma companies routinely pay doctors to speak about their drugs to other professionals.

Notes on a prominent Philadelphia rheumatologist, listed him as "Not quite anti-Merck; major advocate for Searle/Pfizer... willingness to speak for Merck when VIOXX is launched; however, suspicious of his relationship of the Searle/Pfizer camp."

Then, underneath the doctor's name on the memo submitted at trial, is printed "NEUTRALIZED" in bold letters. The plaintiff testimony claims that the term "neutralize" meant to discredit these doctors.

But Rogers in the e-mail said "neutralizing" meant "providing the physician with scientific data in the hope of bringing a physician who is an advocate of a competing medication back to a neutral position."

"'Neutralized' means simply that the information has been provided," he wrote.

Of Merck's actions on Vioxx, Rogers said, "We believe that our strategy and our actions have been responsible...our strategy has been consistent from day one.

What's at Stake in the Vioxx Testimony

Merck's Vioxx sales strategy ended when the company withdrew the painkiller from the U.S. market in September 2004, citing safety concerns that the drug increased the risk for heart attacks and strokes.

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