Act and Reflect on the Outcome
1. How can my decision be implemented with the greatest care and attention to the concerns of all stakeholders?
2.How did my decision turn out and what have i learned from this specific situation?
MERCK AND RIVER BLINDNESS
Headquartered in New Jersey, Merck & Co. is one of the largest pharmaceutical
companies in the world. In 1978, Merck was about to lose patent protection on its two
best-selling prescription drugs. These medications had provided a significant part of
Merck’s $2 billion in annual sales. Because of imminent loss, Merck decided to pour
millions into research to develop new medications. During just three years in the
1970s, the company invested over $1 billion in research and was rewarded with the
discovery of four powerful medications. Profits, however, were never all that Merck
cared about. In 1950, George W. Merck, then chairman of the company his father
founded, said, “We try never to forget that medicine is for people. It is not for the
profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to
appear. The better we have remembered that, the larger they have been.” This
philosophy was at the core of Merck & Co.’s value system.
The disease onchocerciasis, known as river blindness, is caused by parasitic worms that
live in the small black flies that breed in and about fast-moving rivers in developing
countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. When a person is bitten by a fly
(and some people are bitten thousands of times a day), the larvae of the worm can enter
the person’s body. The worms can grow to almost two feet long and can cause grotesque
growths on an infected person. The real trouble comes, however, when the worms begin
to reproduce and release millions of microscopic baby worms into a person’s system.
The itching is so intense that some infected persons have committed suicide. As time
passes, the larvae continue to cause severe problems, including blindness.
In 1978, the World Health Organization estimated that more than 300,000 people
were blind because of the disease, and another 18 million were infected. In 1978, the
disease had no safe cure. Only two drugs could kill the parasite, but both had serious,
even fatal, side effects. The only measure being taken to combat river blindness was the
spraying of infected rivers with insecticides in the hope of killing the flies. However,
even this wasn’t effective since the flies had built up immunity to the chemicals.
MERCK’S ETHICAL QUANDARY
Since it takes $$200 million in research and $12 years to bring the average drug to
market, the decision to pursue research is a complex one. Resources are finite, so
dollars and time have to go to projects that hold the most promise in terms of making
money to ensure the company continues to exist as well as of alleviating human
suffering. This is an especially delicate issue when it comes to rare diseases, when a
drug company’s investment could probably never be recouped because the number of
people who would buy the drug is so small. The problem with developing a drug to
combat river blindness was the flip side of the “orphan” drug dilemma. There were