How to make billions with a evidence-free drug

Jerome Burn, a long time health journalist, writes: “Over two million prescriptions were written for the cholesterol lowering drug ezetimibe in 2011, even though there is no evidence that it does anything to reduce the risk of heart disease, which is (surely) the only reason you would take it…

“It’s been available on the NHS for ten years and in 2011 taxpayers spent 71 million pounds on those prescriptions. Worldwide sales are about two billion annually.

“It’s topical because last month the makers Merck paid out 688 million dollars to settle claims in America that it had defrauded shareholders by withholding the results of a negative trial in 2008.

“The drug, called Vytorin in the States (Ezetrol in the UK), is actually a combination of two ingredients – ezetimibe (zetia in the States) and simvastatin (Zocor in the States) the most widely used cholesterol-lowering statin.

“The way the trial failed is interesting.

“The combination certainly lowered cholesterol very effectively. Patients with a high risk of heart disease who got the combination saw their cholesterol drop by 58% compared with 41% for those on the statin alone. Trouble was that this had no effect on their risk of heart disease. The trial measured how much the drug combo reduced plaque build-up in an artery in the neck. While the statin alone decreased plaque, the combo slightly increased it!”

Still, doctors are still very much keen on lowering cholesterol. Do you wonder why?

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