Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, doctors and researchers have worked to produce medications that can be used to treat, cure, and prevent as many illnesses as possible. Pharmaceutical advancements started to escalate in the late 1800s when significant strides began to be made in vaccines and the treatment of a wide variety of diseases.
However, one company predates the pharmaceutical boon by about two centuries. Merck is the world’s oldest pharmaceutical company, and it’s also among the biggest. Today, pharmaceutical companies are under a microscope for their potential role in the opioid crisis. For that reason, it’s worth knowing who makes your medications and what they are producing.
Learn more about Merck and the medications it makes and sells.
What Is Merck?
Merck is among the largest prescription drug companies in the world and includes a multinational presence that was founded in 1668. Merck & Co., the U.S. subsidiary of the larger Merck group, was established in 1891. The company is known for a wide variety of pharmaceutical products like vaccines, antibacterials, and antiparasitics. Merck has extensive research and development teams, and its efforts have led to a host of new drug approvals, more than any other pharmaceutical company. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved 63 unique chemical products during the life of the U.S.-based Merck subsidiary.
Merck makes and sells dozens of prescriptions from black widow spider antivenin to shingles vaccines. It is a leader in the medical industry in terms of research and development especially when it comes to vaccines. Merck’s current major products include Gardasil, a vaccine that works against human papillomavirus.
The company is also working getting a vaccine approved that may be able to treat a deadly strain of the Ebola virus.
Throughout its history, Merck was the first company to introduce vaccines to treat illnesses like mumps, rubella, measles, hepatitis B, and chickenpox.
Merck makes a variety of medications for many areas of medical treatment including:
- Cardiovascular health. Several medications are made to treat heart-related issues, and illnesses including several treatments for hypertension like Cozaar and medicine for the treatment of high cholesterol called Zetia.
- Endocrinology. Merck produces several medications designed to address hormonal issues stemming from problems in the endocrine system, including Fosamax, which is used to treat post-menopausal women.
- Immunology. Merck produces two medications that treat immune disorders including Renflexis, a drug used to treat gastrointestinal autoimmune problems like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
- Infectious disease. Merck provides dozens of drugs that are designated to fight infections. One of its most commonly prescribed prescriptions is Isentress, for which it has four variations. Isentress is used to treat patients with immunodeficiencies caused by HIV.
- Neuroscience. Merck makes products that are used to treat a variety of neurological disorders including insomnia, depression, and in reversing the muscular blocking agents in anesthetics after surgery. They also produce a drug called Belsomra that is similar to sleep aids like Ambien. It can be dangerous to mix with other central nervous system (CNS) depressants like alcohol and benzodiazepines. The drug also has a moderate risk of dependence.
- Oncology. Merck has helped make significant strides in the treatment of various types of cancer. Nearly a dozen medications are used to prevent cancer-associated nausea,
- Urology. Merck produces one medication for the treatment of enlarged prostates in men. The drug is called Proscar, and it’s useful in treating acute urinary retention and reduces the need for surgery.
- Women’s health. Merck produces a wide range of medications for use in women’s health from pregnancy to cervical cancer. They produce Nexplanon, Implanon, and NuvaRing, which are drugs that are used to prevent pregnancy. They also produce Follistim, which is a drug that is used in women to induce ovulation in women in specific cases of infertility.
- Others. Merck produces several miscellaneous drugs for various purposes. For instance, it makes an opioid antagonist that can help the recovery process after intestinal surgery. It also makes an antivenom for black widow spider bites.
How Merck Is Responding to the Opioid Crisis
The opioid crisis has ravaged towns, municipalities, and states across the United States. It’s cost thousands of lives each year for more than a decade, and it often takes a tremendous financial toll on the hardest-hit places. For that reason, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against pharmaceutical companies that manufacture opioids. Many of these lawsuits have been filed by big municipalities like the state on New Jersey. Like every big pharmaceutical company, Merck is no stranger to lawsuits.
In 1999, the FDA approved a new Merck drug called Vioxx, a brand name for rofecoxib. The drug was designed as an alternative to treating pain associated with arthritis. Other drugs used for this purpose, like anti-inflammatories like Aleve, were known to cause gastrointestinal bleeding.
However, on Sept. 23, 2004, a clinical trial revealed that patients who used Vioxx for more than 18 months were at a significantly increased risk to experience a heart attack. Five days later, Merck began removing the drug from the shelves and notified the FDA. In 2007, Merck paid out $4.85 billion to settle the majority of nearly 50,000 lawsuits that were filed against the company.
In the opioid epidemic, other pharmaceutical companies that make more widely distributed opioid painkillers have been sued by states and municipalities that see them as the root cause for the crisis. Merck has been left out of major lawsuits that have been filed by cities and states like New Jersey. Unlike Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, Merch doesn’t produce some of the most common opioids medications like ones that contain morphine and fentanyl.
“However, that hasn’t stopped the company from getting onboard with the fight against opioids. Researchers from Merck, along with a host of other scientists have been looking at potential non-opioid pain-killing alternatives. Merck also backed a biotech start-up company called Quartet Medicine that attempted to find a non-opioid alternative to pain management. However, the company ran into research problems when it found signs of neurotoxicity, leading it to shut down the project and close its doors in 2017. ”
In August 2018, Merck announced it would help alleviate some of the impacts of the opioid crisis in West Virginia, a state that was hit particularly hard by overdose deaths and addiction. The Merck Foundation gave $2 million to help fund the Great Rivers Regional System for Addiction Care, a program tasked with addressing some of the hardest hit areas in the state. The program uses harm-reduction techniques, counseling services, prevention education, and referrals to help prevent and address addiction.