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Can’t get a peer to review? Just make it up

Submitted by on Monday, 4 May 2009 No Comment

medicationIf you’re going to pull a fast one, make it a whopper.

I’m not talking about the type of stunt I tried in eighth grade, when instead of merely making up a book report on something I hadn’t read, I made up the book.

Yep. I wrote a report on a book that didn’t exist, not because I hadn’t read anything. I did it to see if I could get away with it. And I did pull it off until I confessed to the teacher in a “neener neener neener” way.

Bet you everyone at Merck’s quit saying “neener neener neener” now that the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, whose content consisted mainly of articles lauding Merck products, has been exposed as a fraud.

According to a story in The Scientist late last week, it appears that Merck paid scientific publishing giant Elsevier to produce four editions of the “journal.”The Scientist was able to find copies of two:  Volume 2, Issue 1 and Volume 2, Issue 2. Nice touch, starting with Volume 2.

Both were set up to mimic the look, feel and tone of credible peer-reviewed medical publications.

Both also included a disclaimer: “Please consult the full current product information before prescribing any medication mentioned in this publication.”

Hey, folks can’t say they weren’t warned.

It would be funny in an “eighth-grade caper” sort of way if it weren’t so damn serious. If it didn’t kick drug-company shenanigans several notches above the patent hokey-pokey we’ve all come to know and love.

And Merck is damn serious business.

It manufactures Singulair, an asthma medication Big Guy takes daily that the Food and Drug Administration says does not increase suicide risk but continues to review for links to behavioral problems.

Merck makes Gardasil, the cervical cancer vaccine that already is the subject of expanded warnings.

Merck makes a number of other drugs, from Fosamax for osteoporosis to Propecia for hair loss. Merck makes a number of other vaccines, too, and has been mentioned as a company the World Health Organization might turn to for a swine flu vaccine.

The Australian “journal” came to light in a civil suit in Australia in which thousands of people claim Merck’s Vioxx caused heart attacks or strokes, according to The Australian.

Merck made a $4.85 billion settlement in an American Vioxx lawsuit two years ago. Merck did not, of course, admit that any of the plaintiffs’ problems were due to Vioxx, though the $2.5 billion a year arthritis drug was pulled from the market in 2004.

In the second issue of the “journal,” nine articles were devoted to Vioxx.

Experts who examined the “journal” for The Scientist said there were subtle tips, such as the lack of cited references in the articles. But they added that most harried doctors are not going to pick up on that difference.

Even people who usually defend drug companies are appalled.

“Any pretense of legitimacy to any ethical standard is completely lost when 63 percent of the stories are favorable to Merck. I can understand highlighting articles favorable to your company, but to go through all the hoops to make your own look-a-like peer-review journal seems over the top, ridiculous, and tarnishes science,” a post at ChemistryBlog read.

Enough is enough out of these companies. We’ve gone from trying to buy influence with lunches and pocket protectors to ghost writing journal articles for doctors to faking complete journals.

Doctors are starting to call for limits, and Congress should be, too.

Obviously, drug companies and their innovations have done much good for humanity and no one wants to choke off that innovation, as the right wing will immediately insist is happening the second anyone mentions “regulation” and “pharmaceuticals” in the same breath.

But really, how much longer do we have to live with the wretched excess of profits, the gouging, the basic lack of honesty before Congress steps up or the Foot Dragging Administration starts doing its job?

There’s little hope for meaningful health care reform until that day comes.

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.

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