Merck CEO Ken Frazier Discusses a COVID Cure, Racism, and Why Leaders Need to Walk the Talk
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.
Insights from Merck CEO Ken Frazier
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.”
Tsedal Neeley: Before we talk about vaccines and other important things, I’m interested to know what’s it like to be Ken Frazier right now?
Ken Frazier: I have to tell you, it is incredibly hectic. The good news is my family is well. My children are well, my spouse is well. We had our 35th anniversary dinner last night. All of that is good, but I’m busier than I’ve ever been. I find that these meetings that we have with technology take longer, they’re harder to follow. I’m involved, in addition to running Merck, I co-chair the commission in New Jersey about re-opening the state.
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. And so if we can do something about the 5.5 million African Americans between 18 and 26 who have a high school degree or a GED, but no college and no job, we would make a big impact on this. We have to have the psychological armor to defend ourselves against the racism that’s all around us.
Neeley: George Floyd’s death has reawakened corporate America to issues of racial justice.
Frazier: Yes. We’ve been at these defining moments before and we’ve let them go by. Corporate America says all the right things, we’d make a few donations. You know, when I was growing up in the inner city and it was burning in the 60s, we used to call those pacification payments. It’s really important that people take this seriously and step up to make the kind of dramatic change we need to have in our society.
Neeley: You think this time is different?
Frazier: I’m not sure. I hope it’s different. I’ll tell you a quick little story. I was on CNBC recently talking about this issue and my wife had a Zoom call for the kids and she thought the kids would praise me, but the kids did anything but praise me. My son said to me, “Dad, you’re really good in sort of rational, intelligent discourse, but tell me, what does your acquired pragmatism do for African Americans?” That’s a hard question, right? And so I had to say to him, “The only thing that this sort of learned pragmatism gives me is the opportunity to engage my colleagues who have the real power to make a difference in this country.” And he said, “We’ll see.” So I guess he’s right. We’ll see.
Neeley: So your son is as smart as I would expect any Frazier to be. That is brilliant. That’s insightful. The question was (and) the reaction was.
Frazier: Well, the good thing about being young is you can be radical in your thinking and you can be uncompromising in your principles. And I remember those days when I was uncompromisingly radical. And again, his question is, okay, so you’ve got me in the room now. You’re one of four African American CEOs in the Fortune 500. Does it make any difference to our people that you’re in the room? And that’s his question.
Neeley: all of us have to be present and contributing in important ways. You are now leading at a time when everyone knows that the way to eradicate this deadly virus that’s upon us, COVID-19, is through vaccines. And there’s so many approaches, Pfizer’s doing this and Moderna is doing that. There are over a hundred, I think, companies working on this.
Frazier: 160 different programs.
Neeley: 160. What does it take to find a reliable vaccine? What can you tell … Could you just help me understand what does it take?
Frazier: Well, first of all, it takes a lot of time. I think the record for the fastest vaccine ever brought to market was Merck in the mumps vaccine. It took about four years. Our most recent vaccine for Ebola took five and a half years. And why does it take so long? First of all, it requires a rigorous scientific assessment. And here we didn’t even understand the virus itself or how the virus affects the immune system. We’re starting there. We’re starting with a spike protein as the antigen. What we’re hoping to be able to do with these different approaches is to create a vaccine that we can study quickly that can be both safe and effective and can be durable. Those are three different issues. No one knows for sure whether or not any of these vaccine programs will produce a vaccine like that. What worries me the most is that the public is so hungry, so desperate to go back to normalcy, that they are pushing us to move things faster and faster. But ultimately, if you’re going to use a vaccine in billions of people, you better know what that vaccine does.
Neeley: This idea of reliable and safe and tested on humans, on people.
Frazier: Yes. On large numbers of people.
Neeley: On large numbers of people.
Frazier: Yes. There are a lot of examples of vaccines in the past that have stimulated the immune system, but ultimately didn’t confer protection. And unfortunately, there are some cases where it stimulated the immune system and not only it didn’t confer protection, but actually helped the virus invade the cell because it was incomplete in terms of its immunogenic properties. We have to be very careful.
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. When I say new, that means that they were effective against a pathogen for which there had previously been no vaccine. They’re only seven in the last quarter century, Merck has four, the rest of the world has three. I don’t mean to boast. And there are lots of things that we’ve been working on since the eighties. We’ve been trying to get an HIV vaccine since the 1980s and we’ve been unsuccessful.
Neeley: So, where does this leave us?
Frazier: Let me start by saying, I think when people tell the public that there’s going to be a vaccine by the end of 2020, for example, I think they do a grave disservice to the public. I think at the end of the day, we don’t want to rush the vaccine before we’ve done rigorous science. We’ve seen in the past, for example, with the swine flu, that that vaccine did more harm than good. We don’t have a great history of introducing vaccines quickly in the middle of a pandemic. We want to keep that in mind.
The second point that I think is very important is I think when we do tell people that a vaccine’s coming right away, we allow politicians to actually tell the public not to do the things that the public needs to do like wear the damn masks. Okay? We were so unprepared for this pandemic. It’s not even funny on so many levels.
I learned about it in mid-January or so, but fortunately our researchers who engage in disease surveillance knew about it before that. So it was known to the scientists before, but generally speaking, we’ve done a bad job in being prepared from the disease surveillance, to having the kind of protective equipment that we need to have. To having the kind of testing and tracing that we need to have. To scale up of our critical care centers that were overwhelmed immediately. And right now, it’s critical for people to understand that while we hope to have a vaccine post-HSCT, that they are the protection against the spread of this virus right now by good hygiene, using your mask, social distancing, etc.
Neeley: So we through our behaviors, it’s the best way in which to protect ourselves and others right now.
Frazier: That’s absolutely the case.
Neeley: This is also a global pandemic, the scale and the scope of what’s happening is mind blowing to me. And this needs a global solution so that we can reopen the global economy. What are the barriers to distributing, to producing, to manufacturing, reliable vaccines to the world?
Frazier: So you’re actually touching on something that is in my view, a bigger challenge than the science challenge of coming up with a safe and effective vaccine. For example, Merck gives away a drug called Mectizan for river blindness. That’s one pill per person per year. And we found it’s really hard to get that the last mile to the people who really need it. Okay? 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.
Neeley: What does that mean?
Frazier: It means that no matter where you are in the world, you should have access to this vaccine because it is a global pandemic. And my view is unless all of us are safe, none of us are safe. I mean, when you think about the world that we live in with climate change, with ecosystem disruption, with populations moving around the way they do with human mobility the way it is, this pandemic is just the first of many that we could experience as a species because those conditions are only going to get worse going forward.
Neeley: The EU union has barred Americans from traveling to Europe.
Frazier: Yes, because they see the spikes in this country, which goes back to the fact that we aren’t doing the things that we could do to suppress the epidemic. We Americans, we value liberty. I know this is not a political science conversation, but the fact of the matter is if you think about the United States of America and its history, liberty has been a very strong theme in our politics. And I’ve always believed it’s because historically, we’ve had these two big, beautiful oceans protecting us from the rest of the world. And so we could say it’s all about my liberty. It’s not about security or group security. Well, this virus doesn’t really care about that. And if you’re going to do it, if you’re going to exercise your liberty at my personal expense, then we can’t control the pandemic. And the Europeans are looking at that and they’re saying, “We don’t want you bringing that into our shores.”
Neeley: And we’re 4% of the world population and the infection rates here are astronomical.
Frazier: I think they’re like 25% of the world’s infections.
Neeley: It’s scary. It’s really, really scary. I mean, it’s scary when it comes to thinking about sending children back to school in the fall. Will that happen? because of how people are adhering or not adhering. And reason it’s so politicized So yes, this is not a political science discussion, but this has become a political scenario instead of a global health emergency that we need to manage.
Frazier: Yes, 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. And in inner cities, for example, a lot of parents rely on the schools to feed their children: breakfast, lunch, and often snack after school. So we have to find a way to get daycare open. You have to find a way to get schools open, not to mention the fact that remote learning doesn’t work for every child. Right?
So some children need to be present in the classroom. They have special needs. And generally speaking, just think about it. Again, if you’re looking at our population, there are a lot of people who don’t have access to broadband much less the kind of devices that they need. So this idea that we can conduct education remotely, it will work for some children, the most advantaged children, but it will take disadvantaged populations and move them farther behind than they already are.
Neeley: Deval Patrick and I in our recent conversation talked about even in Massachusetts, the so-called education Mecca of the world, there are many people who don’t have access to broadband, to internet, to the digital tools, to things like Zoom
Frazier: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. This whole pandemic, what it’s done, it’s unmasked the huge disparities that exist in our society already. I mean, the fact of the matter is this educational one we just talked about in terms of access to broadband and hardware. But you look at the disparities. I mean, the African American according to a study at Yale is 3.5 times more likely to die from COVID than a white. Somebody who’s Latinix is three times more likely to die. So this has unmasked these huge structural elements of racism that existed in this country for a long time. And we need to step up to those structural elements that determine the lives of so many people.
Neeley: This is the reason why I started doing these interviews and conversations. This very fact that you just shared. The staggering loss of life. But also those who have recovered from COVID, the damage to their bodies has been enormous to the point where we don’t know if there’ll ever be normalcy. We don’t talk much about that, but the effects are huge. And this is striking Brown and Black communities at a staggering, alarming rate.
Neeley: Unmasking is the right word. I want to pivot and ask you about George Floyd’s devastating death. And we started to talk about this and how corporate America, we’ve awakened to issues of racial justice and wanting to participate and contribute. And so what advice do you have for the leaders who are sincerely interested in making a difference inside of their companies and outside of their companies? You talked about job creation earlier, but there’s a lot that they can do inside as well.
Frazier: Oh, absolutely. So my first piece of advice is act. It’s really important that we not just engage in platitudes and nice statements. It’s time to take action. And the reality of the world is, anytime you try to change the status quo on anything, you’re going to get resistance. And that’s what leadership is about. Leadership is about moving companies to places where their normal operating leaders would not take them. And as it relates to this issue in terms of the development advancement of African Americans inside corporate America, just look at the leadership teams. It’s pathetic. There’s almost no African American representation at the top. There’s four of us in a fortunate 500.
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.”
So 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, not at the same rate as everybody else. As I say, 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.
Neeley: So what’s an example of acting? Say, someone heard you completely buys into what you’re saying, has no clue what she or he should.
Frazier: Well, I already talked about the need for companies to reexamine how they hire-
Neeley: The hiring.
Frazier: Harvard Business School, I think put out a study a few years ago, showing that something like 30% of all hiring for what’s called sort of bachelor’s level jobs are for skill sets that don’t require a bachelor’s. So that alone exclude something like 70% of African Americans for no reason.
Within companies, again, I think if you look at the progress of African American professionals and other employees inside companies, you can see that at middle management, there’s a ceiling, and they don’t progress beyond that ceiling. And so CEOs need to actively intervene to bring people in. I’ll use myself as an example. The only reason I’m the CEO of Merck is when I was minding my business practicing law in Philadelphia, representing this company among others, the CEO of Merck, my predecessor, three times removed, called me into his office, said, “I’m two years from retirement. I can’t seem to get my colleagues, my white colleagues to promote any African Americans. Guess what, I’m going to make your career. I’m going to take a lawyer. I’m going to bring him inside the company. I’m going to give him a job in the business and I’m going to mentor him.” And on my best day as CEO, I’m simply channeling what Roy Vagelos taught me in 1993 and 1994.
Neeley: You look at your EXCOMM and you say, wow, what would be extraordinary in other companies is the right beautiful representation. When you look at your company, you’ve done it.
Frazier: I’m pleased that 30 percent of my senior team is African American. You aren’t going to find that any place else. And by the way, back to the middle management, I’ll be honest, when we’re not perfect at Merck. When I look at people two or three salary grades below the senior team, the African American representation is terrible. And even though we’ve said, for example, that you should put people on the final slate for hiring, they get put on that slate over and over again, and they don’t get hired.
So we’ve got our own issues, but at least on the senior team, I would actually say at the top 10 people in the company, white males are only four of that 10. We have three African Americans. We have one Asian American, we have two women. So we’ve done a good job on diversity at the top, but we haven’t had the pull through at the levels below that I think we need to have. And I take responsibility for that.
Neeley: You do?
Frazier: I do.
Neeley: And will you act to change it?
Frazier: Yeah. So I couldn’t place a system where we actually had targets. And again, we had this idea about putting people on the slate. Now that I look at it three or four years afterwards, we haven’t made the progress. So now I need to ensure that everyone on my team comes forward with a very clear plan for their part of the company for how we are going to start to advance African Americans in that part of the company. And that’s what we’re doing, and we’re going to have to tie it to people’s compensation in a clearer way.
Neeley: That’s amazing. Those are clear examples that I’m sure people will appreciate hearing about and get courage from, because it takes courage, it takes courage. Your predecessor had courage. And what you’re doing, to me, has always been a demonstration of courage. What advice do you have for professionals of color?
Frazier: Well, the first piece of advice is a piece of advice that I got from my dad. My dad was born in the year 1900. So he grew up in a country where segregation in the South, he grew up in the South where segregation was acceptable, where lynching was acceptable. And the thing that he taught me more than anything else was to not listen to what society was saying to me about my own abilities. And I think the fact of the matter is 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, that’s the first piece of advice. The second piece of advice I give is that, you really can’t plan your career. You have to take advantage of all the opportunities that you have before you. And I believe that at least in my own instance, what helped me a lot was that I wanted a certain level of autonomy and accountability. And when you do that, you get more responsibility because you are willing to go outside the lane of what most people do.
So I say, pick a place where you’re going to get mentored, where you can have a certain level of accountability, but the most important thing is do not let society tell you that you’re not good enough. You’re more than good enough.
Neeley : You have to be impervious to those forces because they’re there, they’re there in subtle ways and sometimes not so subtle ways. And I often talk about many Black professionals, brown professionals, are very much alone. The numbers are so few and they have to push through that and find support and community somehow.
Frazier: And it’s harder for this generation, as I was saying, because my father grew up in a country where discrimination and racism were blatant. He could defend himself better than my children can because they’re growing up in a country which pretends not to be racist. And so when they’re confronted with it, it hurts them more because they have no armor.
And so I would ask people to recognize that even the people who say they’re not racist, it’s sort of humorous to me when people say to me, “I don’t see color. I don’t even notice that you’re a Black man.” Every minute of my life, I realize I’m a Black man. How they don’t realize it is beyond me. But I really think it’s important for young African Americans to have their own communities, to reinforce one another so that they can deal with that incoming.
Neeley: Whether it’s inside of their workplace or outside?
Frazier: Yes. For me, it was always broader. I was a lawyer in a law firm in Philadelphia, But I can think of all the African American great lawyers like Bill Coleman, who was a terrific lawyer, wrote the Brown vs Board brief in 1954. He took an interest in me for reasons that I don’t quite understand and I could emulate him. And so I think it’s important. Mentorship is really important. There are two kinds of mentors, I think. There are the mentors you have around the work you’re doing. And then there’s the mentors about what it’s like to be a Black person and to overcome the slings and arrows of racism.
Neeley: Well, the reason he took interest in you is, I can predict, so you and I have something in common that I don’t think we’ve talked about before, and you started college at 16. I started college at 15 and many people took interest along the way. And when they see someone who’s eager, who’s enthusiastic, who loves to learn, they gravitate towards folks like that. That’s been a gift for me. Can I ask you to tell us about your father and your grandfather?
Frazier: Sure. I consider myself to be blessed in a lot of ways, I had great ancestors. But I’m unusual in the sense that if my father were alive today, he would be 120 years old. He was born in 1900. My father Otis Frazier ‘s father, Richard Frazier , was born in 1861. And so I have only one generation between me and slavery, which is quite unusual for someone at this stage. And my father only had a third grade education and what passed for third grade education for an African American child in South Carolina, between 1906 to 1909. But he was self-taught. He had immaculate habits of speech and dress and behavior, and he was his own man. And he gave me the single most important piece of advice I’ve ever had when I was growing up in the inner city.
And here it is, he would say to me, Kenny, what other people think about you is none of your damn business. And the sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be. And I didn’t understand that because of course I wanted to be popular with my peers, but now I can see when you’re running a company like Merck and Wall Street is criticizing you because you don’t do what they want you to do, I can hear my father saying, you know what they think about you is none of your damn business.
Neeley: Like goosebumps. That’s incredible. And the same thing, as you talked about this armor, that is an armor of armors.
Frazier: I think it is. And the other thing that I do think going back to the jobs thing that we were talking about, one of the issues that we have in our community is this large number of unemployed people. And I grew up in a house. My dad was a janitor, very humble job. But I grew up every morning hearing his footsteps in the hall and going down to the bathroom and then going down the stairs and going out to work every morning winter, spring, summer, fall, without fail. And one of my strongest childhood memories is because I was bused to school, I was the first one into the bathroom after he’d left. So I never would see him in the morning because he was already gone. But my enduring memory of childhood is the smell of his shaving cream.
And that is what it meant to be a man to me, was to get up every morning, go to work, take care of your family, take your family to church on Sunday and to make sure that your children understood the importance of education and opportunity. And so, while I was born in a really tough inner city neighborhood, I always tell people I had the good fortune to be born in my mother and my father’s house. More my father, because my mother died when I was really young and I was raised by a father who was not sentimental about his children, but had high standards. And it helped me a lot to have to live up to my father’s standards, which I’m still living up to.
Neeley: What would your father, what would your grandfather, what would they say that in 2020, COVID-19 shows up, devastates African Americans and you, you are one of the leading producers of the solution to save so many African lives and African American lives. What would they say?
Frazier: I think I know, because my father would say it to me when I was growing up. His father was a sharecropper and his father sent him north hoping that he would not become a sharecropper. So when I was growing up, he would say to me, Kenny, this is not really your life. This is his story. And the question is, are you going to play your part? Are you going to write your chapter? So I do think that as an African American CEO in corporate America, I really have a responsibility looking back at those two people and what they went through to give me this opportunity. So I hope that they would say, you did your part, you cared about your people, you represented. They used to be what they called race men, if you get my drift. Okay. And we don’t use that expression anymore. A race man was a man who cared about his people. I hope they would say that I was a race man.
Neeley: I don’t know any other way to end. I can talk to you for hours and hours. You’re the Renaissance man to me. Thank you so much for spending this time with me. I appreciate you. You inspire me and rooting for you as we patiently wait, patiently wait for what’s to come.
Frazier: Thank you for saying that, but Professor recognize that you are iconic as an African American woman, who is a professor at Harvard Business School. You represent something about individual excellence and our young people need to see this exemplar as they come through Harvard Business School, which I can imagine having gone to school on the other side of the river, can be its own challenge.
Neeley: I thank you so much for those kind words. I feel the exact same way about you and the fact that we need to be out there for that purpose as well. Thank you so much.