• AstraZeneca pays $198 million to settle claims – but documents stay secret Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    Patients have been complaining for years that AstraZeneca‘s Seroquel drug, prescribed to help control schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, had serious and unacknowledged side effects, such as  causing diabetes. The London-based firm has settled more than half of the complaints, including this announcement Monday that it was paying $198 million to settle 17,500 of the remaining 26,100 claims.

    The money really is just a drop in the bucket for AstraZeneca, which took in $3.6 billion in 2007 from American Seroquel sales. And it said the settlement wouldn’t affect its dividend payout, an announcement that strikes me as an inadvertent statement about its corporate priorities — profit over patients’ health.

    In fact, the ProPublica investigative journalism website, with the Chicago Tribune, reported that AstraZeneca took a particularly cold approach to marketing, paying a doctor nearly half a million dollars to research and talk up the drug — and get it in the hands of his nursing-home patients.

    And it’s significant that AstraZeneca earlier paid $520 million to settle two federal investigations and two whistle-blower lawsuits over how it marketed Seroquel.

    What jumped out at me, though, is the firm’s continued fight to avoid releasing internal documents about what it knew about the drug’s side effects — and what it didn’t tell consumers, which is one of the key issues in the complaints. Plaintiffs lawyers have argued that AstraZeneca knew of the drug’s problems but chose not to divulge that information so consumers and their doctors could make informed decisions about their treatment regimens.

    Let’s hope some of the rest of the lawsuits are able to break loose those documents. Maybe it’s abject cynicism, but when a corporation spends that much effort to avoid telling people what it knows about its own products, you have to wonder how damaging those documents might be.

    And, conversely, how important those documents could be to consumers still in the dark about  Seroquel’s side effects.

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