Twenty-three years is a long time. And yet, that’s the timespan a Zofran lawsuit alleges that Zofran manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has been in possession of evidence suggesting a risk of birth defects associated with the use of Zofran in pregnancy.
Various studies have offered conflicting views on Zofran, and other generic versions of ondansetron (Zofran). And there is little doubt about ondansetron’s capacity for curbing nausea - an often debilitating byproduct of pregnancy. For some women, morning sickness can be so extreme that only medication can prevent the sometimes constant vomiting, dehydration and weight loss that severe morning sickness can foster.
And yet, ondansetron was never approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as a treatment for morning sickness. Zofran manufacturer GSK makes that very point, noting in a Canadian media report last June that “the safety of ondansetron for use in human pregnancy has not been established…[GSK] monitors and reports all adverse event reports…” (The Toronto Star, 6/25/14).
But is GSK talking from both sides of its mouth? That’s the way it appears, as GSK was previously accused of promoting Zofran off-label for morning sickness, or so it is alleged. The US Department of Justice asserted that GSK had not only promoted Zofran and other drugs off-label, but that the company provided kickbacks to doctors in exchange for prescribing Zofran for morning sickness. Court documents, according to The Toronto Star, alleged that GSK disseminated false and misleading information about the safety and effectiveness of Zofran.
In 2012, GSK settled with the US Department of Justice for $3 billion. As part of the settlement, GSK was not required to admit to any wrongdoing. That latter bit is a frequent feature of government settlements: the ability to escape a finding of wrongdoing in exchange for a massive payment.
One of the more recent Zofran lawsuits, filed by plaintiff Cheri Flynn in Pennsylvania, mirrors allegations contained in the US Department of Justice lawsuit: that GSK knowingly marketed Zofran to pregnant women without sharing information about the potential for Zofran birth defects - information the lawsuit alleges GSK has had in its possession since 1992, if not before.
“GSK not only concealed this knowledge from healthcare providers and consumers in the United States, and failed to warn of the risk of birth defects,” the Flynn lawsuit states, “but GSK also illegally and fraudulently promoted Zofran to physicians and patients specifically for the treatment of morning sickness in [pregnant] women.”
Drug manufacturers do not have the legal, ethical or medical authority to market a drug off-label. Ondansetron was originally approved by the FDA for treatment of nausea in cancer patients following chemotherapy. It was never indicated for pregnant women, although doctors have always had the authority to prescribe off-label should they feel it would benefit the patient. And yet, The Toronto Star last June suggested that doctors in Canada are prescribing ondansetron off-label without having all the facts.
“Women ingested the drug because they innocently believed that Zofran was an appropriate drug for use in their circumstance,” the Flynn lawsuit contends. “When they ingested the drug, these pregnant women had no way of knowing that Zofran had never been studied in pregnant women, much less shown to be a safe and effective treatment for pregnancy-related nausea.”