Merck to Stop Pushing to Require Shots

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Merck and Co., a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical maker, announced yesterday that it would stop its nationwide lobbying for states to require that young girls be immunized against a virus that causes cervical cancer.

Merck officials said the decision comes after public accusations that the company's profit motive, rather than public health, is guiding the debate over whether to require rising sixth-grade girls to receive Gardasil. The new vaccine protects against several strains of human papillomavirus that cause nearly 7,000 cases of cervical cancer annually.

"Our goal is preventing women from getting HPV and cervical cancer," said Richard M. Haupt, executive director of medical affairs for Merck's vaccines division. "What's unfortunate is that our role appears to be a distraction to that goal."

Merck, the drug giant best known for making Singulair for asthma and Zocor for lowering cholesterol, received federal approval for Gardasil in June. Since then, it has lobbied lawmakers in many states, including Virginia and Maryland, for requirement of the vaccine. The District also is considering a requirement.

This month, Texas became the first state, among about 20 considering legislation, to require girls to be vaccinated.

Because Gardasil is intended to halt the spread of a sexually transmitted disease, concerns have been raised among politicians and parents that a mandate might encourage promiscuity. And requiring the vaccine, which costs $360 for a series of three shots, would make Merck hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

The retreat's effect is unknown in Virginia, where lawmakers in both houses of the General Assembly have approved Gardasil mandates. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has yet to sign on, and spokesman Kevin Hall declined to comment on the governor's position.

State Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), who pushed for the bill, said she is comfortable with the public health benefits of mandating Gardasil. But she agreed that Merck's lobbying role complicated efforts to make that case.

In Maryland, a proposed mandate was withdrawn after objections. New legislation is pending that would set up a task force to study the matter for two years.

A number of prominent public health organizations, including the American Cancer Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have recommended that girls receive the vaccine.

But these groups stopped short of pressing for the mandate that Merck wants. Some say they are not ready to endorse a mandate so soon after the vaccine gained Food and Drug Administration approval.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company