Aracelis Torres, ZGAS Vice President of Event Planning
On March 28, 2014, former Merck & Co. CEO P. Roy Vagelos, M.D. delivered the first HSBC Student Series entitled “People, Not Profit: Merck’s Battle Against River Blindness.” Dr. Vagelos spoke extensively about his time at the pharmaceutical company, first as researcher and then ultimately as Chairman and CEO. He engaged the audience with stories detailing the thought process behind significant business and ethical decisions he made throughout his 20-year career at Merck, which ended in 1994. While at Merck, Vagelos practiced medicine honestly and ethically, holding true to the Hippocratic Oath he swore to abide by. Notably, he delayed the release of Lovastatin, the company’s first heart disease drug in the 1970’s, in order to perform further testing; set reasonable prices for a much needed HIV drug in the 1980’s; was key in providing the Chinese government with the know-how to mass produce a Hepatitis B vaccine; and helped subsidize the drug Ivermectin, used to treat thousands of people affected by river blindness in Africa.
Under the leadership of Vagelos, Merck was generous with its resources, and always ventured beyond philanthropy. The pharmaceutical company built strategic relationships and partnerships with key stakeholders, such as the Chinese Government, which controls one of the largest economies in the world. These actions paid off in the long-run, growing the company financially and providing it with the economic strength and reputational capital to recruit and hire top-notch talent to further excel.
Vagelos ended the lecture with a quote from George Merck, founder of the U.S Division of the Merck & Co., which lingered in the back of his mind throughout his career at the Company: “Drugs are for people, not for profit.” This honed in on the key point underlying the lecture, which was how to balance ethical concerns and financial benefits when making business decisions. Business decisions that encompass ethics may bring about immediate benefits, but more importantly, they will build a strong foundation of trust that ultimately produces sustainable long-term benefits.
We were particularly touched by Dr. Vagelos’ strong desire to help people and assist with development efforts in Africa and China. These surely contributed to his successful career.