In December 2000, when Dr. Tadataka Yamada became the new chairman of research and development at Glaxo SmithKline, he was horrified to learn that his company was a complainant in a lawsuit over access to drug therapies for HIV/AIDS patients. GSK was one of 39 pharmaceutical companies charging Nelson Mandela and the government of South Africa with violating price protections and intellectual property rights in their efforts to access lower priced antiretroviral drugs. Close to 25 percent of black South Africans were living with HIV/AIDS and at the time, antiretroviral therapies cost approximately $1000 per month—more than a third of the average South African’s annual salary, putting treatment out of reach for most patients.
Yamada held discussions with his research staff and quickly learned that he was not alone in his opposition to the lawsuit. The team wanted to be a part of the solution to global health issues, not party to a lawsuit preventing such drugs from reaching those in dire need, but they felt they lacked the power to change the company’s direction. Yamada felt differently. In one-on-one meetings with individual board members of GSK, he stressed the company’s moral responsibility to alleviate human suffering and tied it to the long-term success of the company. He stated that GSK can’t make medicines that save lives and then not allow people access to them. He noted the public relations disaster associated with the lawsuit, and set forth a vision, co-created by his team, for how GSK could also become a leader in the fight against TB and malaria, diseases that also were disproportionately impacting third-world populations. The external pressure did not abate, with protests against many drug companies around the world.