The Pharmaceutical Commons: Sharing and Exclusion in Global Health Drug Development
by Javier Lezaun and Catherine M. Montgomery
Science, Technology & Human Values January 2015 40: 3-29,
first published on July 11, 2014
In the last decade, the organization of pharmaceutical research on neglected tropical diseases has undergone transformative change. In a context of perceived “market failure,” the development of new medicines is increasingly handled by public-private partnerships. This shift toward hybrid organizational models depends on a particular form of exchange: the sharing of proprietary assets in general and of intellectual property rights in particular. This article explores the paradoxical role of private property in this new configuration of global health research and development. Rather than a tool to block potential competitors, proprietary assets function as a lever to attract others into risky collaborative ventures; instead of demarcating public and private domains, the sharing of property rights is used to increase the porosity of that boundary. This reimagination of the value of property is connected to the peculiar timescape of global health drug development, a promissory orientation to the future that takes its clearest form in the centrality of “virtual” business models and the proliferation of strategies of deferral. Drawing on the anthropological literature on inalienable possessions, we reconsider property’s traditional exclusionary role and discuss the possibility that the new pharmaceutical “commons” proclaimed by contemporary global health partnerships might be the precursor of future enclosures.