Bextra Withdrawal Could Be Just the Beginning of Trouble for Pfizer


The pharmaceutical industry is a tremendously profitable one, as anyone who reads the business pages of their newspaper can see. Although it can take years to develop a new drug and bring it to market, the profits obtained from a breakthrough drug can be staggering. Last year Merck sold about $2.5 billion worth of Vioxx, and Pfizer sold about $1.3 billion worth of Bextra. The profits are huge, but so are the losses if a problem should develop with a pharmaceutical product. Pfizer voluntarily withdrew the popular anti-inflammatory drug Bextra from the market last month, and their stock has suffered from both the loss of sales and the potential for a large number of product liability lawsuits. Pfizer may have to endure a double whammy this year as the FDA announced that they are investigating reports that the impotence drug Viagra may be linked to cases of blindness in male users. Cialis and Levitra were also mentioned in the report, although most of the cases involved the use of Viagra.

The FDA reports shouldn’t cause alarm; the agency says that it is investigating fewer than 50 incidents of blindness in patients who use a drug that has been used by more than twenty million people since its introduction seven years ago. The FDA investigation says less about the likelihood of blindness in patients than it does about the agency’s own concerns about its reputation. The FDA rightly insists upon rigorous testing of drugs before they reach the market in the name of public safety. But that coin has two sides, and there are those who say that the agency is too quick to approve potentially dangerous drugs and others who say that the agency’s testing isn’t thorough enough. Adding fuel to the fire are the recent memos obtained from Merck employees that suggest that the company was aggressively marketing Vioxx even though their sales staff knew the drug was potentially dangerous.

There may be no link between Viagra and blindness at all, as the form of sudden blindness alleged to have been caused by Viagra use is common to the sorts of patients who have erectile disfunction. The FDA is just being cautious, as they should be. Further tests will determine if there is an actual link. The party likely to suffer immediately is Pfizer, as stockholders, already concerned about Bextra lawsuits, drove the stock price lower immediately upon the release of the Viagra news. Sales will probably decrease, too, as patients who are now accustomed to reading about drugs being withdrawn from the market may shy away from the product until further tests are done. That could present a huge income for Pfizer, as they currently sell about $2 billion worth of Viagra each year. The drug business is a profitable one, but like any business, comes with risks. This year, it would seem that Pfizer is getting a double dose of bad medicine.

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Author: Piyawut Sutthiruk

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