In The Tank: The Case of Nancy Santanello, Intellectual Corruption and the Brookings Institution

The first in an ongoing series about intellectual corruption at DC think tanks.


Nancy Santanello’s name probably doesn’t ring a bell, but back in the day and year — around 2004 in her case — she was almost famous. She still should be but sadly she slithered off and was forgotten, which is unfortunate because this dangerous shill for the pharmaceutical industry is still in business.

Nancy Santanello: Photo courtesy of her Twitter page.

Let me explain. Santanello — who on Twitter describes herself as a “physician, epidemiology research lover” — worked for drug giant Merck between 1997 and 2015 as a Senior Director, Executive Director and Vice President. She is “a consultant in epidemiology, pharmacoepidemiology/safety, comparative effectiveness, real world evidence, clinical trial design and patient centered research,” according to this online bio.

While at Merck Santanello played quite a nasty little role in the deadly Vioxx scandal. To make a long story short, and explained here in a New York Times story written in 2000, when Santanello had a cushy senior post at Merck:

In May 2000, executives at Merck, the pharmaceutical giant under siege for its handling of the multibillion-dollar drug Vioxx, made a fateful decision.

The company’s top research and marketing executives met that month to consider whether to develop a study to directly test a disturbing possibility: that Vioxx, a painkiller, might pose a heart risk. Two months earlier, results from a clinical trial conducted for other reasons had suggested such concerns.

But the executives rejected pursuing a study focused on Vioxx’s cardiovascular risks. According to company documents, the scientists wondered if such a study, which might require as many as 50,000 patients, was even possible. Merck’s marketers, meanwhile, apparently feared it could send the wrong signal about the company’s confidence in Vioxx, which already faced fierce competition from a rival drug, Celebrex.

“At present, there is no compelling marketing need for such a study,” said a slide prepared for the meeting. “Data would not be available during the critical period. The implied message is not favorable.”

This story doesn’t end well, especially for patients taking Vioxx for heart attacks. “Merck voluntarily withdrew Vioxx from the market in 2004,” NPR later reported. “Research published in the medical journal Lancet estimates that 88,000 Americans had heart attacks from taking Vioxx, and 38,000 of them died.”

In a May 18, 2004 Wall Street Journal story (no link available), it was reported that Merck had secretly ordered that the name of Carolyn Cannuscio, one of the company’s researchers, be stricken from a study co-written with eight honest experts that linked Vioxx to increased risk of heart attacks. This was only discovered because when the study was published in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, the publication forgot to strike Cannuscio’s name from a footnote.

When Merck got busted, senior executive Santanello was wheeled out to defend the whole sordid mini-scandal, and seek to defend Vioxx’s well-deserved deadly reputation. “There were serious limits to the analysis,” she told the Journal of the study.

So why am I mentioning all of this in the debut of a new column at Washington Babylon that will cover corruption and influence peddling at think tanks, and how these latter, which are allegedly independent groups, are routinely and secretly used by companies and oligarchs as unregistered lobbyists?

Well, that’s a topic I’ve written a lot about, for example here, in a story that mocks Thomas Friedman and the Center for American Progress, and here, in a monograph I wrote while a Harvard fellow. Curiously, Glenn Greenwald, who I haven’t been friendly with since 2015 or thereabouts, once described this as the best thing ever written on intellectual corruption — a topic he knows quite a bit about first-hand and one I’ll be returning to from time to time — at think tanks.

Anyway, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn — and that’s why I’m writing about this in this debut column of “In The Tank” — that after her disgraceful actions at Merck, and when she still worked for the firm, Santanello was a panelist at a Brookings Institution event on health care reform and also appeared as an expert at several other of the think tank’s events. (Incidentally, she has also published over 60 peer-reviewed manuscripts and speaks at prestigious medical conferences.)

By the way, it doesn’t appear that Santanello currently has ties to Brookings, which is a cesspool of corruption, and the events she participated in took place in or around 2011. But this was all just brought to my attention by someone and I’m traveling overseas and wanted to knock out a fast story before heading out for work.

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