How Merck’s Decision Saved Millions of Lives in China

Dr. Roy Vagelos, former chairman and CEO of Merck and Company, delivering the 2004-05 Ralph Connor Memorial Lecture. (Image:  Science History Institute via  flickr  CC BY-SA 3.0)
Dr. Roy Vagelos, former chairman and CEO of Merck and Company, delivering the 2004-05 Ralph Connor Memorial Lecture. (Image: Science History Institute via flickr CC BY-SA 3.0)

Merck & Co. Inc. (MRK), the largest U.S. pharmaceutical company, transferred its genetically engineered hepatitis B vaccine technology to China in 1989. This was the decision of its former president, Dr. Roy Vagelos, who oversaw 10 years of research to successfully develop the vaccine.

In September 1989, Merck signed an agreement with China to transfer the hepatitis B vaccine technology. Merck provided China with a full set of technology and equipment for the production of the hepatitis B vaccine and to train Chinese personnel to ensure the same quality of vaccine that was made in the U.S. could be produced in the factories in China.

In 2016, a medical school graduate from Shandong Province was found to have sold tainted vaccines across 24 provinces over a period of five years. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Merck transferred the world’s most advanced hepatitis B vaccine technology to China in 1989. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Dr. Vagelos became aware of an urgent need in China to produce safe and effective hepatitis B vaccine for an estimated 20 million babies born each year to protect them against the deadly liver disease. However, China was very poor at that time and faced with this reality, Dr. Vagelos made a decision to save lives instead of making a profit for Merck. Explaining his decision, Dr. Vagelos said:

Dr. Vagelos was born in October 1929 to a Greek immigrant family in New Jersey. At the age of 25, he received his doctorate in medicine from Columbia University School of Medicine and worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  In 1975, Dr. Vagelos was appointed the deputy director of the research and development at Merck and a year later, he was promoted to director. From 1975 to 1986, Dr. Vagelos led the research on the hepatitis B vaccine.

By November 2017, nearly all of the substandard vaccines had been sold and used to inoculate over 200,000 children. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

From 1975 to 1986, Dr. Vagelos led the research on the hepatitis B vaccine. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

In an interview with Intellectuals, he recalled the series of events leading up to the decision:

When China eventually produced the hepatitis B vaccine on its own, Merck’s technicians withdrew. Merck did not charge any patent fees or sell the vaccine on the Chinese market.

When it comes to facing the challenges inside and outside the company, Dr. Vagelos quoted the words of the company’s founder, George Merck:

This may be the reason why the company approved Dr. Vagelos’ proposal, a decision that saved millions of lives in China.

Translated by Chua BC

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