Merck's Medical Media Empire

by Martin J Walker

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

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

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

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

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.