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    MSD, the Indian affiliate of US drug giant Merck, has terminated its association with Schbang, the creative marketing solutions agency that was involved in the controversial publicity stunt by model and influencer Poonam Pandey in which she faked her own death.

    After her team announced that Pandey had died due to cervical cancer, she re-emerged live in a video clip saying it was an awareness campaign for prevention of the disease that affects thousands of women in India. The stunt, however, backfired and Pandey was widely accused of insensitivity towards patients who face such a life-threatening condition.

    Schbang in a social media post had admitted to carrying out the stunt in collaboration with Pandey and media outlet Hauterfly, and issued an apology.

    That clearly wasn’t enough to repair ties with MSD, which sells Gardasil vaccine against some strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer.

    The PR activity by Pandey and Schbang to raise awareness about cervical cancer “is not associated with MSD in any way or form,” an MSD spokesperson told ET. “Following this incident, on the grounds of conflict of interest, we have terminated the service contract with Schbang.”

    MSD’s action comes after some social media posts alleged that the company was involved in the publicity stunt.

    In a LinkedIn post on February 6, venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy associated Schbang with Poonam Pandey and MSD’s HPV vaccine, and shared a link saying the awareness campaign had garnered over 43 million views on YouTube and was shared by many influencers.

    Gardasil is being sold in India since 2008. Gardasil 9, which targets nine HPV variants, is priced at ₹10,850 per dose, while the quadrivalent Gardasil is available for ₹4,000 per dose.

    According to the Indian Council of Medical Research National Cancer Registry Programme (ICMR-NCRP), the estimated number of cervical cancer cases in the country in 2023 was more than 340,000, the government informed parliament on February 2.

    Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her interim budget speech, had announced the government’s decision to encourage HPV vaccines for girls aged 9-14.

    Last year, Pune-based Serum Institute of India launched an indigenously developed HPV vaccine Cervavac, while British drugmaker GSK discontinued selling its HPV vaccine brand Cervarix in India in 2022.

    • Published On Feb 7, 2024 at 07:11 AM IST

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