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A group of 96 plaintiffs have joined in a product liability lawsuit against the makers of Zostavax, alleging that side effects of the shingles vaccine caused them to suffer a more severe and persistent strain of the viral infection.
The complaint (PDF) was filed against Merck & Co. and McKesson Corp. on July 3, in New Jersey Superior Court, indicating that Zostavax failed to perform as advertised and designed.
Zostavax was introduced by Merck in May 2006, for the prevention of shingles among individuals ages 60 or older. It is a more potent version of the Merck chickenpox vaccine, Varivax, but problems with Zostavax have been linked to reports of longer and more painful shingles outbreaks.
According to allegations raised in the lawsuit, Merck used an under attenuated live strain of the varicella zoster virus (VZV) in Zostavax, which was not weakened enough to prevent reactivation of the virus. Instead of the body developing the proper immune response, the live virus combined with the old virus in some users, resulting in a more virulent strain of shingles.
“A risk of using a live virus vaccine is that it is not weakened enough or ‘underattenuated’,” the lawsuit notes. “Under-attenuated live virus creates an increased risk of developing the disease the vaccine was to prevent.”
Shingles itself can cause scarring, bacterial infections, encephalitis, hearing loss, vision problems and other complications.
This latest claim is one of a growing number of Zostavax vaccine lawsuits filed by individuals nationwide who suffered long-term shingles outbreaks and other side effects after being inoculated.
There are now more than 400 plaintiffs with Zostavax cases pending in New Jersey state courts. In May, the Acting Administrative Director of the Courts, Glenn A. Grant, issued a Notice to the Bar, announcing that the state Supreme Court has received two applications for a Zostavax multicounty litigation (MCL) to be established.
In April, a similar motion to transfer was filed at the federal level with the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) by Merck, who indicates that there are at least 57 shingles vaccine lawsuits filed in federal courts nationwide, involving a total of 117 plaintiffs.
In complex pharmaceutical litigation, where large numbers of claims are brought by users of the same medication, each claiming similar injuries, it is common for the federal courts to centralize the lawsuits before one judge to reduce duplicative discovery into common issues, avoid conflicting pretrial rulings and serve the convenience of the parties, witnesses and the judicial system. In New Jersey state court, an MCL is very similar, but only affects cases filed in state court.
Zostavax sales have fallen in recent years, pulling in $668 million for Merck in 2017.