Merck target of Vioxx federal grand jury probe

Bottles of the prescription arthritis and pain medication VIOXX sit on a shelf at a New York City Pharmacy, September 30, 2004. REUTERS/Mike Segar

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Merck & Co said on Monday that it has been advised it is a target of a U.S. grand jury investigation involving its withdrawn pain drug Vioxx.

The company had previously disclosed the government probe, which has been ongoing since 2004. But it only last week received a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of Massachusetts informing the drugmaker it is a target of the grand jury investigation, Merck said.

The probe involves Merck’s research, marketing and selling activities regarding Vioxx, the once $2.5 billion a year drug that was pulled from the market in September 2004 after a study showed it doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke in long-term users.

Merck said it has responded and will continue to respond to requests from the U.S. Attorney for documents and information in connection with the probe. The investigation includes subpoenas for witnesses to appear before a grand jury, the company has said in securities filings.

The New Jersey-based drugmaker was sued by tens of thousands of former Vioxx users who claimed to have been injured by the arthritis medicine.

After winning the majority of product liability trials that reached a jury, Merck agreed to pay $4.85 billion to settle personal injury claims from former users who had suffered heart attacks and strokes.

In a separate release, Merck said it and JP Morgan completed primary syndication of $7 billion of new Merck credit facilities with commitments from eight other banks as part of the financing for its $41.1 billion acquisition of rival Schering-Plough Corp.

The other banks are Bank of America, BNP Paribas, Citi, Credit Suisse, HSBC, The Royal Bank of Scotland, Santander and UBS, Merck said.

The drugmaker also said it has secured commitments for the amendment of its existing $1.5 billion revolving credit facility to allow it to remain in place after the merger.

Reporting by Bill Berkrot; editing by Richard Chang