companies cant catch a break on TV news shows. After months of
media complaints about companies selling allegedly unsafe medicines
such as Vioxx, the September 11 edition of 60 Minutes included a
segment that attacked a drug company for not distributing a
potentially dangerous drug used in an experimental treatment.
Less than a month ago, CBS sang a different tune. The August 15 Evening News was criticizing the safety of medical studies, saying a recent death exposed weaknesses in a system that many are now pushing to change, according to reporter Sharyl Attkisson.
The 60 Minutes story did just the opposite, highlighting complaints from patients in the study who wanted it to continue. The piece was a typical network lawsuit story, telling the tale through the eyes of the plaintiff and making the defendant Amgen look like the bad guys in keeping with a trend found in a  Business & Media Institute study.
Lesley Stahl began the segment with this dramatic introduction: Say you got an incurable disease and went on medication that you believed was making you better? Imagine the anguish if the company that made the medication took it away from you?
She followed with more than 12 minutes of a largely one-sided story about Amgen ending a test for a new drug to aid sufferers of Parkinsons disease. As Bob Suthers, one of the test patients, complained of Amgen, What they did was unconscionable. They they took hope away from us.
Stahl was persistent in her comments about the company agreeing to continue providing the drug, even though all of the test subjects had signed contracts saying they understood that Amgen might discontinue the test. Aware of the company's fear of liability, the patients have made assurances they will never sue Amgen.
She questioned why the company would not give in to patients requests, asking bioethicist Arthur Caplan, Even if these particular patients promise, write every kind of legal contract that they will hold Amgen, the company, liable, even if they give away every chance they have to come back and sue?
Caplan didnt give her the answer she appeared to be seeking. Instead he made a point that Stahl didnt grasp: The companies don't believe them. We're in a litigious society to the point where people will say, That won't be worth anything. You can't waive your rights to sue me. Stahl failed to connect the fact that the patients had already made an agreement with Amgen that allowed for the company to end the test and they were suing because they didnt like the result.
Stahl hammered her point a third time: Even though they all signed a consent form acknowledging the company could stop the experiment, they hired attorney Alan Milstein to argue that the decision about continuing the drug should be in the hands of the principle investigators, the patients' own doctors, not the company. That statement underlined Caplans point that You can't waive your rights to sue, though Stahl never connected the dots.
The report also included an interview with neurologist John Slevin, from the University of Kentucky, who was convinced that the drug actually works for Parkinsons, despite warnings from a recent study of possible damage to patients. Slevin spoke highly of the drug. According to Stahl, He took his evidence to the FDA. Slevin said the FDA was OK with its use. What the FDA told us, they didn't see any reason why they shouldn't be allowed to continue having the drug as long as things were being monitored, he said.
That assessment ignored both legal realities and reporting even on CBSs own Evening News. In the August 19 broadcast, Anthony Mason pointed out how expensive the Vioxx decision could be. This was just the first of 4,200 Vioxx-related suits filed against the company, and estimates are that together, they could cost Merck tens of billions of dollars. Vioxx had been approved by the FDA.
Despite this, Stahl persisted, asking Slevin, Still, Amgen wouldn't do it? When he said no, she responded, Ooh, you must have been so frustrated.
Stahl went on to discuss one patients theory that the drug had been discontinued because Amgen wanted a new delivery method. The method used in the drug trial involved a combination of having two pumps inserted into the patients abdomen, along with holes drilled in his head to install a catheter. Stahl pointed out that the patient couldnt afford that method. She even tracked down a video of a speech by Amgen's vice president of research, Roger Perlmutter, where he said the method was unrealistic. Still, she continued to paint Amgen in a negative light.
She capped this revelation with the fact that Amgen had filed for a new patent for the drug that included other delivery methods including an encapsulated form. In other words, Stahl went to great lengths to prove that a drug company might try to make a pill form of a medicine.