The coroner at the centre of the Merck & Co Vioxx (rofecoxib) trial will now take the stand, Judge Ben Hardin has ruled. Dr Maria Araneta, who conducted the autopsy on patient Robert Ernst, will testify today after a Merck appeal also failed to override the judge’s decision, according to Industry reports. Dr Araneta attributed Mr Ernst's death to an irregular heartbeat and clogged arteries, which Merck asserts is proof that Vioxx was not responsible for his death [[01/10/04a]]. However, the plaintiff's lawyer, Mark Lanier, claims that Dr Araneta is now prepared to testify that, in fact, a heart attack killed Mr Ernst but that the classic signs of damage were not in evidence.

Dr Araneta was to be called last week as a surprise witness for the plaintiff. However, Merck's lawyers requested that they be allowed to question Dr Araneta privately and Judge Hardin was to decide whether her testimony would be presented to the jurors [[27/07/05a]].

The New York Times reports that Judge Hardin ruled against Merck in deciding that Dr Araneta should be permitted to testify, noting: “The defendant will not be unfairly surprised or unfairly prejudiced if Dr Araneta is allowed to testify.” The US giant had argued that it had not been given sufficient notice and that the testimony may “unfairly harm the defense.”

It was not a good week for Merck, which received another blow after a New Jersey judge ruled that a third-party health plan, which paid for Vioxx for its members, could file a nationwide class action against Merck claiming that its marketing and advertising of the Vioxx was fraudulent and misrepresented drug’s safety and efficacy, and further that Vioxx was promoted and marketed by Merck as much safer and more effective than the much cheaper non-steroidal drugs already on the market. In addition to seeking reimbursement for the monies spent on Vioxx, the payors would also be eligible for triple damages under the consumer fraud act.

- Meanwhile, Merck has overhauled its management committee as part of what it says will “ensure an effective succession within the Merck Vaccines Division.” Adel Mahmoud, who is President of Merck Vaccines and expected to retire next September, becomes Chief Medical Advisory, Vaccines and Infectious Diseases, on the management board. Margaret McGlynn, currently President of the company’s US Human Health unit, will become President of Merck Vaccines in his place.