River blindness, a disease which the World Health Organization refers to as “a scourge of humanity throughout recorded history”, has left one million people visually impaired or blinded, 18 million infected, and another 120 million people at risk.
That began to change in October 1987 with the drug Mectizan, developed by Merck & Co., Inc., one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. One dose could provide a year of protection against the parasite which causes the disease in remote communities in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
The problem: the drug was far too costly for its target population, posing Merck’s leadership with a difficult question. What should the company do with a product that had the potential to impact lives, one which it could not sell commercially?
Dr. Roy Vagelos, Merck’s CEO at that time, made the decision. He announced the company’s commitment to donate Mectizan – “as much as needed for as long as needed” – with the goal to help eliminate river blindness.
“The World Health Organization and the World Bank believe the disease can be eradicated over the next 25 years. We’ve donated 3.5 billion tablets, $5.5 billion worth of drugs, and $50 million into the other nonprofits working with us,” said current Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer of Merck & Co., Cuong Do D’88 T’89.
“This is what leadership is all about,” said Do. “Doing things that are unpopular, difficult, but the right thing to do.” Hosted by the Center for Business & Society and the Health Care Initiative at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, Do spoke to MBA and MD students about how bold leadership and willingness to take calculated risks has enabled Merck to approach its goal of eradicating river blindness.
Merck’s work with the disease was the start of the company’s increased engagement with other organizations. Over the years, it has forged partnerships with public and nonprofit institutions in order to extend its reach and leverage its capacity to make a difference in the world.
“The vast majority of the world is unable to benefit from advances in medicine, so our goal is to be in the right place at the right time. We have unique access to health care. We look for ways to extend our leverage, and to partner with organizations who can do things we’re not good at,” Do told the students.
Under Do’s watch, Merck has announced “Merck for Mothers”: a 10-year, $500 million long-term effort with global health partners to “create a world [in which] no woman dies from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.” The company has joined forces with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as UK Aid and the government of Sweden. These partners bring strong public relations capabilities and lend credibility and experience with human rights issues. “Over course of the next decade, three million lives are at stake,” Do explained. “In Africa, when a mother dies, the family dies. The social impact of infant and maternal mortality is tremendous.”
In the context of such challenges, private companies can play an important role. Do emphasized the theme that business has an important role to play alongside nonprofit and public organizations – and developing partnerships with other organizations to address social issues is a learnable, desirable skill for MBAs.
~by Carole Gaudet, November 2013