Merck CEO Ken Frazier, one of only four Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, discusses an approaching COVID vaccine, racism, and why leaders need to walk the talk.

Full interview by Harvard Business School – Working Knowledge

As chairman and CEO of the leading vaccine producer in the world, pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., Ken Frazier has one of the highest-profile positions in global business.

But Frazier, who is leading one of the firms on a charge to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, is unique in another way: He is just one of four Black CEOs leading a Fortune 500 company. Frazier is also outspoken, having resigned from President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council to make a clear statement against “hatred, bigotry and group supremacy” that surfaced in protests at Charlottesville, Virginia.

In the video below, Frazier provides insights into this turbulent period of American history with Tsedal Neeley (@tsedal), the Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Topics ranged from corporate America’s role in hiring more African Americans to the experience of being raised just one generation away from slavery.

On vaccine development

“I think when people tell the public that there’s going to be a vaccine by the end of 2020, they do a grave disservice to the public.”

“Let me just give you one data point. In the last quarter century, there have only been seven, truly new vaccines introduced globally at the clinical practice… Merck has four, the rest of the world has three.”

“My view is unless all of us are safe, none of us are safe.”

On institutional racism

“There are all these subtle messages that young African American professionals get that tell them that they’re not quite good enough. They don’t measure up. They don’t deserve to be where they need to be. We have to have the psychological armor to defend ourselves against the racism that’s all around us.”

“We have to be willing to take the position that if we’re not racist, we need to challenge a process, a system, a custom that allows African Americans to advance.”

“We need politicians who have the will and the integrity to tell people the truth.”

“At the end of the day, if you’re complacent with the status quo, you’re complicit in the racism that the status quo hides.”

Key takeaways

Corporate America is asking what it needs to do about racial inequality. And we are working on a lot of issues; education reform, criminal justice reform, other issues like that, health care reform, but the nexus between corporate America and what Black America needs and the most, in my opinion, is employment.

I think these leaders have to take a strong stance. And what we have to be willing to do is to talk about the subtleties of race. It’s really easy to lament when you see something as brutal and aggressive and blatant as what happened in Minneapolis. But the subtleties of racism in terms of the belief, for example, that African Americans, as a group are not as capable as whites are. And the fact that if an African American is trying to move forward in a corporation, because he or she belongs to that disadvantaged group, they have to be better in order to get to the same place. People don’t want to admit that, especially companies that believe they have a “merit system.”

When referring to the vaccine… So I would say there are two big issues with respect to global distribution. First of all, we’re living in a time of ultra-nationalism where countries want to take whatever is available and say, “I’m going to use it first in my own population,” rather than using it first in the populations globally that are at the greatest risk. The second issue is this issue around manufacturing at scale. There’s seven and a half billion people on the planet right now. And we’ve never had a vaccine that’s been used in that larger population. So even if you have a vaccine, scaling it up to manufacture at those kinds of numbers, and then being able to figure out how to distribute it particularly in the areas of the world where people can’t afford the vaccine, where the last mile challenge is greatest. That’s going to be a huge issue for us. So what we’re committed to is broad, equitable, affordable access, but that’s a mouthful.

We need politicians who have the will and the integrity to tell people the truth. The reality of the world is given what I said about vaccine development, the reality of the world is that this time next year very well may look like what we’re experiencing now. And so when you think about sending children back to school, we’re going to have to find a way to do that safely because parents are trapped if their children are at home.

Full interview