When a drug company defines its "duty" as maximizing value for its shareholders, I suspect even Milton Friedman is rolling over in his grave.
Sadly, that seems to be what drives Big Pharma these days. A Wall Street Journal study revealed that "for prescription drug makers, prices increases drive revenue" even when demand for a medication falls.
That's not how Adam Smith's invisible hand is supposed to work. It's certainly not how Big Pharma used to define its duty.
And you don't have to look far for examples. Just today, William Campbell, a researcher at Merck, was awarded a Nobel Prize for work he did back in the mid-1970s. Campbell discovered a cure for river blindness, a parasitic disease common in the developing world.
Ironically, Merck never made a cent on the cure because it didn’t have a presence in the countries where the disease was most common. But the company's senior executives recognized the drug's promise – one annual dose could treat the disease and prevent blindness, and if an entire community was treated for the 12 to 14 year lifecycle of the worms that caused it, the disease could be totally eliminated.
So Merck made an open-ended commitment to give the drug away until river blindness was no longer a threat to public health. In 1988, the first year of the program, it lined up half a dozen non-profit organizations (NGOs) to distribute about 100,000 doses.
Today, more than two-dozen NGOs help distribute 90 million doses a year. The World Health Organization projects that Latin America could be free of the disease in a few years, and the goal even seems within reach in parts of Africa.
All because at least one drug company defined its "duty" more broadly than making money for its shareowners.