Merck’s Medical Media Empire

February 14, 2011

14 Feb – Today the world is so big and the miasma of information about it so opaque that even experts have to be constantly in touch 24/7, as they say. Take your eye of the ball for a second and you might regret it for a life-time. Some information, however, slips through the fog almost unnoticed; who, for instance, remembers reading ‘MSD signs partnership with BMJ group’ in June 2008, or two years later, ‘Univadis and the Lancet announce new partnership’. Anyway only a small number of people would have read beyond the headline, bothering to work out who MSD was and what was Univadis.

 Slingshot Publications

Anyone who did get further than the headline might have been shocked, for MSD is of course Merck Sharp and Dohme, the massive drug company known as Merck. And Univadis®? Yes, you’ve guessed they’re also an aspect of Merck. Merck is one of the manufacturers of MMR II and was one of the defendants in the claim brought by UK parents against three vaccine manufacturers. In fact Merck, having taken over Aventis Pasteur, which company had previously partnered them in marketing MMR II in the UK, now constitutes two of the defendant companies in that presently defunct court case. 

What does Univadis®, that part of MSD involved in both partnerships do? Like many multinationals the ever developing Merck is gradually building an empire that will not have to rely upon PR and information agencies outside it’s own corporation.  Univadis® (Univadis® is a registered trademark of Merck & Co., Inc., Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, USA) is the company within a company that sets out to educate doctors globally in the Merck scriptures. Merck describes the Univadis® web site as ‘a non promotional medical website of MSD pharmaceuticals, providing information and interests to UK doctors.’ It has developed educational programmes in both the developing and developed world that in partnership with journals and other media organisation can give the world the Merck word. Not a word you notice about influencing the content of the BMJ or the Lancet or any kind of reciprocal arrangement that will see BMJ or Lancet articles twice round the world in milliseconds. 

When Brian Deer recently wrote his three slanderous articles about Dr Andrew Wakefield in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the common opinion was that the BMJ was in hoc to Big Pharma — so what did one expect. It was hard to fault this opinion even without any exact detail, after all it had been thought for some time that Deer was in league with either GSK or MSD -especially during his time attending the the US cases – and with the Lancet policy having been steered for a period by a Managing Director of Elsevier who was also a non-executive board member of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK); and with Dr Richard Horton, the Lancet’s editor, an enthusiastic Fellow of the drug front Academy of Medical Sciences, funded in part by MSD and GSK, and BMJ conferences supported by both GSK and MSD, it had become an oxymoron to talk of  “independent” medical journals.

Linking Univadis®/Merck with the BMJ and the Lancet inevitably links them both to Merck’s VIS (Vaccine Information Service) online — ‘a comprehensive source of information, especially designed to provide healthcare professionals with the answers to their questions on vaccines’ — and Media Medics a group of slatternly men and women, who long ago sold their souls for the bright lights. Media Medics has been appointed to provide new content for the Univadis® site, and each month we will be supplying four articles on topical subjects, together with regular input to the related discussion forums. The articles are opinionated (as well as factually accurate!) and comment is encouraged. We are now looking for potential contributors … 

In this plethora of manipulated global information and somewhere in the tangle of vested interests we find a rough ball park vision of the involvement of Deer with the vaccine industry, it’s still not ‘smoking-gun’ clear but it begins to form a focusing picture of Deer’s involvement in the BMJ assaults on Dr Wakefield. When the BMJ signed up with univadis® Merck’s global Medical Director, Dr Ottfried Zierenberg said: 

Our collaboration with BMJ Group intends to ultimately increase the health outcome for patients, and strengthen the position of univadis® as a trusted, professional and comprehensive source (of articles and information) for the medical community.

It was still a matter of controversy only a few years ago when medical journals or their staff were found to be supported, linked or conjoined with pharmaceutical companies, today the battles are over, and the dead truth lies scattered on various battlefields, the bodies looted of their ethics. In the UK, both the Lancet and the BMJ are evidently deeply compromised. But is anyone going to take any notice? Probably not, ethics has become a foreign language in the UK. 

MSD have had plenty of experience in crawling out from under responsibility, especially after their Rotavirus was heavily criticised for creating a potentially fatal bowel condition. To polish up their image following that farrago, the company employed the infamous crisis PR company APCO Worldwide based in Hong Kong, to design and execute a communication strategy that would solve the problem. APCO, working closely with the client, took what was a complex situation involving unfamiliar medical terms and simplified the information into defined key messages. APCO then devised and executed a proactive media campaign to communicate these messages throughout Hong Kong. Central to the campaign was a media briefing, organized by APCO, which was attended by almost all print, broadcast and online media, where two leading pediatricians presented the facts, contextualized the announcements and answered questions from the press. The briefing was used to highlight a separate report issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to the FDA’s announcement, which concluded that the vaccine did not increase the chance of intussusception in babies. 

The APCO campaign, they say, solved the situation entirely, proving to the world that no one was damaged by MSDs Rotavirus, in fact, it appeared it was another companies product that was responsible! 

APCO’s media campaign generated widespread, positive coverage of MSD’s key messages. As a result, public confidence in the vaccine was swiftly restored. 

Despite the sterling work of APCO on the Rotavirus case, it seems that Merck feel the need to build a proactive media empire, with embedded medical journals, that can dissapear the tragedy of damaged children and snow-out their legal responsibilities.

Mr. Walker’s website,  provides extensive analysis about the vituperous Wakefield-Deer controversy.