Big Pharma, IP & Medicine for the Poor

by Gemma Harvey

When pharmaceutical giant GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) recently announced that it will not be filing for patent protection for new medications in Least Developed and Low Income countries, I was initially impressed. But then I wondered: What had they been doing before? Although GSK have set a precedent in the pharmaceutical industry for widening access to medicines through price caps, tiered pricing, and reinvestment in community health, they still prop up an intellectual property (IP) system that excludes many poor patients. Reading from the GSK press release, the company’s IP policy traces neoliberal doctrine:

‘Increasing access, incentivising innovation appropriately and achieving business success can go hand in hand.’

‘While IP stimulates and underpins continued investment in research and development, GSK believes being flexible with its IP can help address pressing health challenges in developing countries.’

GSK maintains a belief in intellectual property, although the company evidently sees a need to ‘be flexible.’ IP undoubtedly creates unequal access to essential medicines. Underlying debates about IP represent an ideological conflict: Can market-oriented competition be compatible with the provision of social goods? Some would say that GSK’s corporate philanthropic acts—such as the new patent leniency in Least Developed and Low Income countries—suggest compatibility is possible. Yet even with schemes such as tiered pricing, distribution of medicines remain highly restricted in favour those who can afford them.

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Foucault wrote that ‘health has become a consumer object, which can be produced by pharmaceutical labs’; it has ‘acquired economic and market value’ (2004, p.16). Big Pharma holds power over health in the form of ‘pharmaceutical governance,’ because access to medicines depends on the policies that companies like GSK follow.

The recent news from GSK is a positive step in loosening the shackles of intellectual property. Yet GSK’s move shows—ironically—the power that pharmaceutical companies continue to hold. Increasing access to medicine is still something the company can voluntarily choose to do, or not.

Gemma Harvey is a student on the MA in the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex.



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