Intersecting fields of scholarship have accounted for pharmaceutical companies’ extraordinary success in promoting and profiting from their wares. This article instead tracks resistances and failures in the terrain of Big Pharma amid economic, epistemological and political challenges to their business models. Pfizer has been a key player in the rise of Big Pharma, and its fortunes since 2006 provide windows into the industry's stagnation – the failure of Pfizer's would-be blockbuster torcetrapib, the closing of its heart disease research unit, its free drug program for newly unemployed Americans. These illustrate transformations in ‘least neglected diseases’ and in pricing structures, and can be understood in the contexts of both biotech and Global South critique. Biotech companies have remained profitable by creating biologics for niche subsets of rich populations with a high willingness to pay (including lucrative treatments I call ‘drugs for short lives’). At the same time, dominant global capitalists/philanthropists have brought unprecedented funding to making treatment for AIDS and TB available to the poor and tackling long-neglected diseases like malaria. Now that pharmaceutical profits and markets seem less than infinite in their expansion and philanthropy has been pharmaceuticalized, the stakes of demands like ‘medicine for people not for profit’ are changing. STS critique of pharmaceuticals should take these transformations into account as it deepens its systemic critique of global inequality.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Alazraki, M. (2009) Pfizer Earnings Beat the Street. Beating Future Hurdles Will be Harder. Daily Finance, 20 October, http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/investing/pfizer-earnings-beat-the-street-beating-future-hurdles-will-be/19201958/, accessed 21 October 2009.
Angell, M. (2004) The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It. New York: Random House.
Armstrong, W. (2009) Attack of the monster merger: What the Wyeth deal means for Pfizer – And the rest of pharma. Pharmaceutical Executive 29 (3): 36–48.
Barter, P.J. et al (2007) Effects of torcetrapib in patients at high risk for coronary events. New England Journal of Medicine 357 (21): 2109–2122.
Berenson, A. (2005) Pfizer stirs concern with plans to sell heart drugs only as a pair. New York Times, 7 March.
Berenson, A. (2006) Pfizer ends its studies on drug for heart disease. New York Times.
Biehl, J. (2007) Pharmaceuticalization: AIDS treatment and global health politics. Anthropological Quarterly 80 (4): 1083–1126.
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (2009) Global health program fact sheet, http://www.gatesfoundation.org/global-health/Documents/global-health-fact-sheet-english-version.pdf.
Chomsky, N. (2001) 9–11. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Clarke, A., Shim, J.K., Mamo, L., Fosket, J.R. and Fishman, J.R. (2003) Biomedicalization: Transformations in health, illness, and U.S. biomedicine. American Sociological Review 68 (2): 161–194.
Clinton Health Access Initiative. (2010) What we do, http://www.clintonfoundation.org/what-we-do/clinton-hiv-aids-initiative/.
Congressional Budget Office. (2006) A CBO study: Research and development in the pharmaceutical industry, http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/76xx/doc7615/10-02-DrugR-D.pdf.
Cooper, M. (2006) Resuscitations: Stem cells and the crisis of old age. Body and Society 12 (1): 1–23.
Cooper, M. (2008) Life As Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neo-Liberal Era. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Das, V. and Das, R.K. (2006) Pharmaceutical in urban ecologies: The register of the local. In: A. Petryna, A. Lakoff and A. Kleinman (eds.) Global Pharmaceuticals: Ethics, Markets, Practices. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 171–205.
Derrida, J. (1981) Plato's Pharmacy. In: Dissemination, Translated by B. Johnson. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 61–171.
Dumit, J. (2002) Drugs for life. Molecular Interventions 2 (3): 124–127.
Dumit, J. (forthcoming) Drugs for Life: Managing Health and Identity through Facts and Pharmaceuticals. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Ecks, S. (2005) Pharmaceutical citizenship: Antidepressant marketing and the promise of demarginalization in India. Anthropology & Medicine 12 (3): 239–254.
Ecks, S. (2008) Global pharmaceutical markets and corporate citizenship: The case of Novartis’ Anti-Cancer Drug Glivec. BioSocieties 3 (2): 165–181.
Ewart, R. (2008) Lessons from Torcetrapib: Putting patient-oriented medicine first. American Family Physician 77 (5, March): 597–598.
Garber, A.M. (2009) An uncertain future for cardiovascular drug development? New England Journal of Medicine 360 (12, March): 1169.
Gertner, A. (2010) Science of uncertainty: Making cases for drug incorporation in Brazil. Anthropological Quarterly 83 (1): 97–112.
Greene, J. (2008) Prescribing by Numbers: Drugs and the Definition of Disease. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Haraway, D. (1991) A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. In: Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, pp. 149–181.
Harris, G. (2009) Pfizer pays 2.3 billion to settle marketing case. New York Times, p. B4, September.
Hayden, C. (2007) A generic solution? Pharmaceuticals and the politics of the similar in Mexico. Current Anthropology 48 (4): 475–495.
Hirschler, B. (2010) Data shows declining productivity in drug R&D. Reuters, June, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE65Q3IM20100627.
Jackson, E. (2010) Top-up payments for expensive cancer drugs: Rationing, fairness and the NHS. Modern Law Review 73 (3): 399–427.
Kahn, J. (2008) Exploiting race in drug development: BiDil's interim model of pharmacogenomics. Social Studies of Science 38 (5): 737–758.
Kahn, J. and Sankar, K. (2005) BiDil: Race medicine or race marketing? Health Affairs 24: 455–463.
Klug, H. (2008) Law, politics, and access to essential medicines in developing countries. Politics & Society 36 (2): 207–246.
Krumholz, H.M. and Lee, T.H. (2008) Redefining quality – Implications of recent clinical trials. New England Journal of Medicine 358 (24): 2537.
Lacey, M. (2005) Look at the place!: Sudan says, “say sorry,” but the U.S. won’t. New York Times.
Lakoff, A. (2007) The right patients for the drug: Managing the placebo effect. Biosocieties 2: 57–73.
Mamo, L. and Fishman, J.R. (2001) Potency in all the right places: Viagra as a technology of the gendered body. Body and Society 7: 13–35.
Marres, N. and McGoey, L. (2010) Experimental failure. Presented at After Markets, Oxford University.
Martinez, B. and Goldstein, J. (2007) Big pharma faces grim prognosis: Industry fails to find new drugs to replace wonders like lipitor. Wall Street Journal,http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119689933952615133.html.
McGoey, L. (2010) Profitable failure: Antidepressant drugs and the triumph of flawed experiments. History of the Human Sciences 23 (1): 58–78.
New York Times. (2005) A troubling drug combination. 2 March.
New York Times. (2008) Pfizer to focus on more profitable diseases. 30 September.
Nguyen, V-K. (2005) Anti-retroviral globalism, biopolitics, and therapeutic citizenship. In: A. Ong and S. Collier (eds.) Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 124–144.
Novas, C. (2007) Patients, profits, and values: Myozyme as an exemplar of biosociality. In: S. Gibbon and C. Novas (eds.) Biosocialities, Genetics, and the Social Sciences: Making Biologies and Identities. London: Routledge, pp. 136–156.
Persson, A. (2004) Incorporating pharmakon: HIV, medicine, and body shape change. Body and Society 10 (4): 45–67.
Petrecca, L. (2009) Pfizer offers free drugs, Lipitor, Viagra, to unemployed. USA Today, 14 May.
Petryna, A. (2009) When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Pfizer. (2007) Pfizer announces launch of generic amlodipine besylate product by greenstone. http://mediaroom.pfizer.com/portal/site/pfizer/index.jsp?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20070323005696&newsLang=en, accessed 23 March.
Pfizer. (2008) Information about the MAINTAIN™ program: A free medicines program for newly unemployed Americans. http://media.pfizer.com/files/pfizer_maintain_fact_sheet.pdf.
Pfizer. (2009) President Clinton, Pfizer, and Mylan announce new agreements to lower prices of medicines for patients with drug-resistant HIV in developing countries, http://mediaroom.pfizer.com/portal/site/pfizer/?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20090806005853&newsLang=en.
Pollack, A. (2009) Forty years war: Taking big risk for big payoff, industry seeks cancer drugs. New York Times, 2 September.
Pollock, A. (2008) Pharmaceutical meaning-making beyond marketing: The racialized subjects of generic thiazide. Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 36 (3): 530–536.
Pollock, A. (forthcoming) Medicating Race: Heart Disease and Durable Preoccupations with Difference. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Rasmussen, N. (2008) On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine. New York: New York University Press.
Reagan, R. (1961) Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine, LP Record. Chicago, IL: American Medical Association.
Risen, J. (1999) To bomb Sudan Plant, or not: a year later, debates rankle. New York Times, 27 October.
Rose, N. (2006) The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Saul, S. (2008) In sour economy, some scale back on medications. New York Times, 30 September.
Sismondo, S. (2008) How pharmaceutical industry funding affects trial outcomes: Causal structures and responses. Social Science & Medicine Volume 66 (9): 1909–1914.
Universities Allied for Essential Medicines. (2009) Global access licensing framework. February, http://essentialmedicine.org.
Wang, S.S. and Lublin, J.S. (2008) Pfizer plans to abandon heart-drug development. The Wall Street Journal, 30 September.
Van, Der Geest S., White, S.R. and Hardon, A. (1996) The anthropology of pharmaceuticals: A biographical approach. Annual Review of Anthropology 25: 153–178.
Zizek, S. (2009) First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. London and Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books.
This article began as a talk presented at the 2009 Society for the Social Studies of Science conference double panel organized by Carlos Novas, Amy Moran-Thomas and Linsey McGoey, ‘The Aid Complex: politics and pathologies of funding in global health’, and discussion there was extraordinarily rich. I would like to thank Linsey McGoey and the anonymous reviewers from BioSocieties for their helpful comments, and Maital Dar for her always invaluable role as interlocutor and editor.
About this article
Cite this article
Pollock, A. Transforming the critique of Big Pharma. BioSocieties 6, 106–118 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1057/biosoc.2010.44
- blockbuster drugs
- heart disease
- financial crisis