An oral history: Stepping up throughout the COVID-19 pandemic

Scientists, leaders, global partners and more reflect on how we rose to the challenge and worked together, one moment at a time

November 12, 2021

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In early 2020, the world first began grappling with SARS-CoV-2 as the virus spread quickly, leading to a pandemic declaration and a fundamental change in the daily lives of everyone.

As a company with a long legacy of research in infectious diseases, we recognized our responsibility to mobilize our scientific expertise and experience to help address this extraordinary global health crisis — but we also recognized the importance of taking care of our people and our communities.

In this oral history, our leaders, colleagues and key partners share in their own words how Merck and the world at large were transformed by COVID-19.

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When news of the rise of COVID-19 first hit, our teams around the world swung into action. Together we focused on patients, keeping employees safe and creating new ways to ensure business continuity.

Dr. Julie Gerberding
Chief patient officer and executive vice president, population health & sustainability

Dr. George Painter (professor of pharmacology and chemical biology and director of the Emory Institute of Drug Development): “The rapid emergence and the spread around the globe was stunningly alarming. As much misery, morbidity and mortality associated with the COVID-19 pandemic really hadn’t been experienced since the 1918 influenza.”

Nicoletta Luppi (senior vice president and managing director, Italy): “Italy was one of the first countries to be deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. And we recognized that we had a responsibility to our community as a whole, from everyday citizens to our treasured — and, increasingly, brave — health care professionals.”

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With citizens and organizations working together to do their part in this global effort, we recognized that we had a special responsibility to help. Mobilizing as quickly as possible, we had provided support in a number of ways, including partnerships with organizations worldwide, financial commitments and donations of masks, PPE and other materials, among many other efforts.

Kenneth Frazier (executive chairman): “Never in our lifetimes had there been a moment when Merck’s mission to save and improve lives was as clear and compelling. Never in our lifetimes had there been a moment when our call to action was as urgent.”

Ken Gustavsen (executive director, social business innovation): “Despite incredible advances in science and medicine, significant gaps in access to quality health care still exist around the world, and challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic shine a harsh spotlight on this issue. In developing countries, health care inequities are most striking.”

Elyse Bealer (executive director, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa hub supply chain operations and a member of the Oklahoma Cherokee tribe): “A seemingly simple donation of hand sanitizer takes on an entirely different meaning during this pandemic when you consider that 30 percent of homes on the Navajo Nation don’t have running water.”

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Colleagues around the world lent their skills and talents to help fight the pandemic both inside and outside of Merck. From the White House task force to vaccination clinics to food banks, volunteers took pride in knowing that they were helping make a difference.

Philippe Mariot (associate director, medical affairs and volunteer COVID-19 clinical studies coordinator): “Improving and saving patients’ lives is part of our company’s values. The opportunity that our company gave us to help health care professionals fighting at the forefront of the COVID-19 emergency showed our commitment to patients and the health care system.”

Dr. Muhammed “Mo” Ali
Managing director, Norway and volunteer physician

Emma Mason (executive vaccine customer representative and volunteer nurse): “The ER is a place where you have to stick together – we were family and I felt a commitment to my colleagues. Merck allowed me to do what I needed to do: put patients first and do this for the people that couldn’t.”

Kurtis Oakley (associate director, regulatory affairs, and part of the White House coronavirus task force): “I had the normal fears that most people had. But there was pride and honor that came with knowing that when I sat in that office with my team, I’d be able to assist.”

A global pandemic calls for extraordinary partnership and collaboration across teams and even companies and international organizations. Our partnership with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics is just one example of how we leveraged our resources and joined forces to innovate together during a crisis.

Daria Hazuda (vice president of infectious disease and vaccines): “Merck has a rich history and legacy, and it was that legacy — that understanding of the discovery, development, manufacturing challenges — that was really critical to address a global infectious disease pandemic.”

Sunil Patel (senior vice president and head, business development & licensing): “We became laser-focused on forging partnerships to prevent or treat COVID-19, and we recognized that we could get there faster working together. Our teams reviewed hundreds of opportunities, and we executed numerous deals in record time. There were no competitors or opposing parties around the table, only people with a shared and urgent mission.”

Wendy Holman (CEO and co-founder, Ridgeback Biotherapeutics): “Everything we’ve done has been totally patient-centric. We were thrilled to pair up with Merck, which sees the world the same way. It’s a testament to both companies.”

George Painter
Professor of pharmacology and chemical biology and director of the Emory Institute of Drug Development

Ken Frazier speaking at the White House

In March 2021, we announced a partnership with Johnson & Johnson to expand manufacturing capacity and supply of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, adapting and making available some of our existing manufacturing sites to accelerate the distribution of the vaccine.

Sanat Chattopadhyay (executive vice president and president, Merck Manufacturing Division): “At Merck, we have a rich legacy in vaccine manufacturing. So we combined our expertise with Johnson & Johnson to help increase supply and expand access to authorized SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 vaccines.”

Kim Dezura (vice president, operations & plant manager): “It was really exciting for us. It gave us an opportunity to turn our expertise and our assets over to support Johnson & Johnson and to be part of the solution.”

Tim Bassler (associate vice president and head of quality): “It was a chance to leverage our manufacturing expertise and the quality and compliance and excellence that we demonstrate. None of us have been untouched by the pandemic, and to be a part of this effort was very meaningful.”

Virginia Boldt (specialist, engineering): “This was a unique time in our history, and it made me really proud that the company I worked for stepped up and helped the greater good — and knew what to do in this important time.”

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, some clinical trial sponsors paused their operations. But we quickly responded to maintain the integrity of our trials and the safety of the patients taking part in them.

Dean Li (president, Merck Research Laboratories): “Through all the cacophony and an impossible time – with all the sound and fury that a pandemic creates — our team’s ability to stay on target and to remain focused on basic principles of science, medicine and clinical trials was key.”

Andy Lee (senior vice president and head of global clinical trials operations): “The pandemic didn’t arrest other diseases — they continued. It’s amazing that we were able to continue this work. People worked night and day to maintain the databases. It was an incredible eye-opener about the compassion and dedication of clinical researchers from around the world.”

Carisa Stadlman De Anda
Executive director, clinical research

Jill Ryan (clinical research director): “Everyone we asked for help worked with such amazing speed and enthusiasm — always with the patient — and the pandemic — in mind.”

Jacqueline Gress (director, project management): “It was truly amazing to work with such an outstanding clinical team. They had to plan for so many scenarios to enable success, mitigate so many issues that could have led to failure and negotiate nonstandard pathways forward in order to accelerate execution, and they never once let the quality of our data or decisions be negatively impacted.”

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Alongside our colleagues and partners around the world, we continue to forge onward to the future, researching, innovating and advancing our mission to help save and improve lives.

Dr. Nick Kartsonis (senior vice president, infectious diseases & vaccines, clinical research): “This pandemic underscores the imperative for our company and our industry to keep investing in research to combat the greatest health threats. We could only do COVID-19 research because we do research every day — we weren’t starting from zero. Years from now, another virus will undoubtedly emerge. And when it does, we will be that much smarter, and that much better prepared.”

Wendy Holman: “What I hope is that preparedness still stays front of mind … The work is not done.”

Dean Li
President, Merck Research Laboratories

“From the onset of the pandemic, Merck has sought out opportunities to apply its scientific expertise in the global fight against COVID-19, and we are very pleased to now be in a position to make a meaningful difference.”

Rob Davis, CEO and president

Rob Davis