A US federal judge has turned down Pfizer’s plea to get its hands on confidential, peer-reviewed documents relating to studies published by the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Archives of Internal Medicine on its COX-2 inhibitors Bextra and Celebrex.

The World’s number one drugmaker is currently embroiled in a court battle with patients claiming to have suffered certain cardiovascular events after taking the now withdrawn Bextra (valdecoxib) and Celebrex (celecoxib), and, earlier this year, requested access to peer-reviews used by these publications and the New England Journal of Medicine on the basis that they may contain important information relevant to its defence.

The move, however, was hotly contested by several medical journals including the NEJM (court decision still pending), which insisted that allowing pharmaceutical companies or indeed anyone else access to peer reviews would go against their anonymous nature and compromise the whole process, according to media reports.

Furthermore, Catherine DeAngelis, editor-in-chief of the JAMA, reportedly argued that, if the court granted Pfizer access to these documents, it could open the floodgates to a whole stream of such requests, which may lead to a fall in the number willing to undertake peer reviews.

Court sides with opponents
The court agreed with those opposing Pfizer’s motion, turning down its requests for peer reviews used by the JAMA and AIM, and also ruled that the company had failed to explain properly how access to the confidential peer reviews would help its defence in the lawsuit. It concluded: “Whatever probative value the subpoenaed documents and information may have is outweighed by the burden and harm that would result”, reports Science Magazine.

And in an editorial published early online today in the JAMA, DeAngelis and editorial counsel Joseph Thornton said that their journals have historically and deliberately kept unpublished manuscripts and peer review comments confidential. "This promise to reviewers and authors allows the peer review process to work in an unrestrained environment,” they explain.

“The subpoenas attempted to invade the peer review process, and we are delighted that Magistrate Judge Keys said so when he ruled they could not be enforced against us,” they added.

But Pfizer previously issued a statement insisting that subpoenas “are a routine part of fact-gathering in any litigation by both plaintiffs and defendants”, and stressed that both parties served subpoenas on a number of authors and/or medical and scientific journals during the litigation.