Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bleak Winter for Servier

Winter is coming early to Europe this year, particularly for one company situated in the suburbs of Paris. Servier faces its first court case, filed yesterday by two patients at Nanterre, France, in connection with its diabetes drug Mediator (benfluorex).

An investigation by the French medicines regulator (Afssaps) led to claims earlier this month that Mediator, and its generic equivalents – manufactured by Myland and Qalimed – may have caused 500 deaths since 1976.

Servier is being charged with “serious deception, based on the nature, substantial quality and composition of the product”, “placing the lives of others in danger”, “administration of a noxious substance” and “involuntary homicide”.
Harsh accusations, indeed (even by pharmaceutical industry standards). However, the actual number of deaths associated with Servier's drug is derived from two separate studies assessed by Afssaps and the association is, for the most part, hypothetical. At Afssaps' request, three expert epidemiologists examined the study results and suggested that on the basis that some 7 million people were exposed to the drug between 1979 and 2009, the number of deaths was likely to be in the region of 500.

Put in that context, 500 deaths doesn't sound too unusual. But use of benfluorex also significantly increased the risk of hospitalisation as a result of thickening of the heart valve (valvulopathies), according to the pharmacovigilance studies that Afssaps pulled together.
Faced with this first case, Servier has a number of factors running in its favor. Firstly, it voluntarily withdrew Mediator from the French market in November 2009, following several reports of cardiac valvulopathy and pulmonary arterial hypertension. The European Medicines Agency followed suit in December 2009.

Next, Servier may be deemed to have a point when it retorts that the “inflated” number of deaths was the result of an “extrapolation” and therefore did not represent actual Mediator-caused deaths. Moreover, the company revealed that, even if this morbidity were proven, it would only correspond to a risk of 0.005%.

The Nanterre court will have to examine the question as to whether this represents an acceptable level of risk. It certainly may do, particularly as regulators frequently stress to the public that “no drug is risk free”.

Still, Servier would do well to use this as a test case for what may yet be to come. Success for the appellants could spell trouble, not just for Servier but also, potentially, for Myland and Qalimed too.

If this first snowflake in Nanterre turns into a snowstorm, France could be prompted to re-examine the case for class actions – which the country hasn't, until now, allowed, and which health minister Xavier Bertrand is keen to avoid. That said, given the inordinate length of the legal process in France, Servier may do well to go into hibernation until winter is over.
--Faraz Kermani
image by flikrer taivasalla used under a creative commons license

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