Deploying the Profit Motive to Beat Ebola

ON MAY 3, REPORTS that a strange and frightening illness had struck more than 20 people in the village of Ikoko-Impenge reached health officials in the province of Équateur, on the western border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. By May 8, the Ministry of Health confirmed what many had feared: Ebola was back.

But this outbreak ran a different course than many of the previous ones across Central and West Africa. By mid-July it was over. Instead of more than 11,000 deaths—the grisly toll of the 2014–2016 epidemic in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea—this one killed 33 and never spread far beyond its immediate zone of infection.

There was much that was different this time around. Both local health officials and the World Health Organization had responded with lightning speed. And now there was something else to contain the spread: an experimental vaccine.

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The vaccine, codeveloped by Merck, No. 2 on this year’s Change the World list, kept Ebola in check through a protective ring of immunization, with health workers vaccinating virtually everyone who may have been in contact with a person infected with the virus. And while it’s still too early to tell (and another outbreak has since begun), the new vaccine and immunization strategy may well be a turning point in the battle against one of the scariest diseases of the past century—and perhaps even give us clues to staving off other viral epidemics.

Merck’s investment in the Ebola vaccine has been prodigious. The company tested it in the crucible of past outbreaks. And the production of each vial of this live attenuated vaccine, combined from the DNA of different viral components, is so complex that it takes a full year to complete, says Beth-Ann Coller, who heads up Merck’s Ebola research efforts. But the drug giant isn’t doing this out of charity. Rather, the company’s vaccine business—which includes inoculations against pneumonia, shingles, and the cancer-causing HPV—had more than $6 billion in sales last year. Even if the Ebola vaccine doesn’t make gobs of money on its own, the knowledge gained from developing it should help inform R&D across the business.

Health workers administer Merck’s Ebola vaccine during an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in July.Saya Oka-WHO
Saya Oka-WHO

Merck, in short, is doing what so many great companies do: trying to fix something that needs fixing and trying to turn a profit while doing it. Indeed, businesses around the globe manage to accomplish both of these things—they do well by doing good—every day, and often away from the headlines.

We at Fortune think that’s a phenomenon worth exploring. So for the fourth straight year, with the help of our partners at the Shared Value Initiative, we’ve identified dozens of companies that are tackling public health, environmental, economic, or other societal challenges as part of their everyday operations. The list, importantly, isn’t about the charity companies give—and, no, we’re not weighing corporations on some omniscient scale of good and bad. (We couldn’t make that assessment if we tried.) Fortune’s Change the World list, rather, is about solving problems through the only sustainable and scalable problem solving machine we know of: business.

Back in 2015, when we started this effort, we thought we’d have a hard time finding 50 companies that fit the bill. This year we had so many worthy candidates that we stretched the number of big-company honorees, those with at least $1 billion in annual sales, to 57 and included six rising stars as well.

See last year’s Change The World list.

One of those rising stars has also helped, in a surprising way, to fight the latest Ebola outbreak—that’s Chinese refrigeration company Aucma. One major challenge of Merck’s Ebola vaccine is that it needs to be stored in ultralow temperatures (–60 degrees Celsius or less). The feat was nearly impossible to manage in remote parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where there’s often no power grid to speak of—until, that is, a group of inventors at Global Good created a portable deep-freeze container called the Arktek, capable of storing hundreds of vials of vaccine anywhere. So how does Aucma fit into this story? It manufactures the Arktek.

Head Writers: Erika Fry and Matt Heimer
Contributors: Eamon Barrett, Carson Kessler, Beth Kowitt, Adam Lashinsky, McKenna Moore, Sy Mukherjee, Andrew Nusca, Aaron Pressman, Lucinda Shen, Jonathan Vanian, Phil Wahba, Jen Wieczner.

This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2018 issue of Fortune.

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