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Merck’s Pharmaceutical Company Ethical Dillema

The scale of the ethical dilemma raised by Merck’s management and scientists is defined by two outcomes. The pharmaceutical company could either have invested money in an entirely economically unsound project, showing goodwill and corporate responsibility for the eighteen million patients from poor regions suffering from onchocerciasis. On the other hand, the company could have abandoned the ivermectin project because of its disproportionality, for at worst, it could have led to a corporate crisis. This is the global scale of the corporate mission, and third-party research has shown that companies have not faced similar problems before. For example, Canon was one of the first to introduce Kyosei social responsibility practices in 1988 in response to the company’s expansion into foreign markets (Torres et al., 2012). Observing the socio-economic imbalance between countries, Canon invested in the development of the economy of poor regions and created research centers by training local citizens (Kaku, 1997). In this context, it is impossible not to mention Pfizer’s new pro bono program for the free release of antibiotics to treat trachoma infections (ITI, 2020). Approximately 1 in 60 people worldwide is at risk for this eye disease, and recognizing this need, Pfizer has developed a drug donation initiative through a network of partners, including government and commercial organizations.

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However, it is clear that Canon, even though they were among the first in this area, had the scale that caused Merck’s dilemma. Canon, like Merck, was indeed trying to solve a global problem affecting poor regions, but Merck had a greater social responsibility because its area of influence focused on health. The health of entire nations in poor regions could ultimately depend on Merck’s decisions, whereas Canon only affected economic parameters. Pfizer is an example of high social responsibility, but Pfizer and Merck are pharmaceutical companies. Thus, it is difficult to find a commensurate example of goodwill among non-pharmaceutical companies, while pharmaceutical companies are more likely than others to show corporate responsibility for society.

Even when WHO support was obtained, the drug Mectizan had serious problems with distribution because the drug’s key audience, patients from poor regions, had no access to medicine and were extremely poor to buy. This set a precedent for giving away the drug at no cost to Merck’s economic detriment, but it may have built a strong reputation for that pharmaceutical company as a firm of the highest social responsibility. Central to the development of this entire Mectizan-related project was the company’s scientific commitment to creating a breakthrough treatment for onchocerciasis; although the financial goals of the commercial venture were not last in importance. In addition, Merck’s goodwill was to promote well-being in impoverished regions and to create the right image for the company in countries around the world. Finally, many scientists work for the ultimate idea, and to refuse to fund the project because of economic irrationality would have resulted in demoralization.

It is these combined reasons that should have been decisive in the decision to continue developing the project. However, the assumption of gratuitous dissemination should not have become a focal idea as long as it was possible to find commercial partners. It is clear from the financial report that the company’s net income has almost tripled in ten years, and the number of employees has also increased, evidence of a competent expansion of the company. A decision to give away a drug at no cost would have had a serious impact on these parameters. Therefore, Merck would be correct to set a timeframe — the last year of laboratory development of the drug — within which management would actively seek partners. The case study described the search mainly among U.S. departments, but it should have expanded offers of commercial cooperation to countries in Europe — Russia, Britain, Germany, and France — that want to gain political influence in African regions. These meetings could find cooperation for Merck, which would significantly reduce the economic burden.

However, even if these countries refuse to cooperate and no other partners are found, Merck will have to invest in the free distribution of the medicine. For this purpose, the company will recruit distributors and a network of volunteers who will go on a humanitarian mission to poor regions suffering from onchocerciasis. During the term of this mission, the volunteers will educate residents about the rules of prevention, help local doctors treat the sick, and leave a supply of drugs for the next outbreak of the epidemic. In this case, Merck would have to cover the cost of moving and lodging the volunteers (or outsource), develop a training program for residents, and maintain marketing information about the ongoing programs to enhance the company’s business reputation. In addition, it is clear that by not getting paid to sell Mectizan, the company is working to its economic detriment. However, the reputational and socially responsible aspects associated with such a donation are expected to cover these losses eventually.


ITI. (2020). International trachoma initiative. Pfizer. Web.

Kaku, R. (1997). The path of kyosei. HBR. Web.

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Torres, C. A. C., Garcia-French, M., Hordijk, R., & Nguyen, K. (2012). Four case studies on corporate social responsibility: Do conflict affect a company’s corporate social responsibility policy. Utrecht Law Review, 8, 51-73.

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