Merck Ethics

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Merck Ethics Study

In developing a drug to combat river blindness, pharmaceutical company Merck discovered an opportunity to treat millions of affected peoples around the world that probably would never see commercial use. The drug in development, ivermectin, was unaffordable to the primary victims of river blindness, Third World peoples. Thus, Dr. Vagelos, the head of research at the time, treaded upon a ethical quagmire; he could either choose to scrap the drug and its further research or he could spend millions more on a drug destined for financial failure. In accordance with Merck’s company direction at the time, Dr. Vagelos understood that the purpose of the company was to serve people and that profits result from the fulfillment of this primary purpose. As such, Dr. Vagelos not only pushed for further research on the drug, but decided when he became CEO to offer the drug, now Mectizan, for free to all affected individuals.

Dr. Vagelos decision fulfills all four of Fleming’s principles of ethics. In general, his decision reflects Fleming’s definition of ethics, which is a “standpoint from which all persons have a special dignity or worth.” The choice to make the drug available for free is utilitarian, as the number of affected individuals worldwide greatly outweigh the number of negatively impacted stockholders. In doing so, Dr. Vagelos choice also illustrates his belief that people are entitled to the right of humane treatment by others. Similarly, his choice reveals every person’s obligation to protect and ensure these rights. Dr. Vagelos decision is also just and fair, in that all members of a group (in this case, the human race) are to be treated with equal benefits.
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