Pharmaceuticals and global health: multi-disciplinary perspectives

National security, anxiety, cyborgism, danger, ethics, innovation, the public-private divide, crises, avoidability, the politics of neglect – who knew pharmaceuticals could relate to so many different aspects of life?

From pharmaceuticalisation to moulecularisation to genericisation to securitisation to neoliberalisation, who knew there were so many “-isations” related to pharmaceuticals?

From human rights lawyers, international relations specialists in intellectual property to social theorists, science and technology studies experts, anthropologists, to geographers, who knew people from so many disciplines were working on pharmaceuticals?

From pandemic disease as a Foucauldian crisis of circulation, to the Polanyian backlash against market dynamics in pharmaceuticals, pharmaceuticals can and are being looked at through many lenses.

Last month I was lucky to be invited to participate in a workshop on “Pharmaceuticals in Global Health” organised by Stefan Elbe, Anne Roemer-Mahler and Chris Long of the University of Sussex’s Centre for Global Health Policy. The event marked the culmination of their European Research Council project on “Pharmaceuticals and Security”.

Rather than gather people with the same disciplinary background, approach or geographic area of interest, the workshop gathered people who broadly study the same thing – pharmaceuticals. It was amazing to see a variety of perspectives on what is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as a “compound manufactured for use as a medicinal drug”.

The pharmaceuticals landscape is one which includes actors ranging from the G7 to the World Health Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland, to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority in the United States to small-scale manufacturing units in Gujarat, India.

Rightly or wrongly pharmaceuticals has come to play a key role in global health policy.

Pharmaceuticals is clearly central to a whole variety of pressing societal challenges and is multi-dimensional.

All participants were asked a question for a video on whether the future of global health is pharmaceutical:


Participants seemed to agree that pharmaceuticals will continue to play some role in global health. Pharmaceuticals is a fascinating lens not just on health issues, but on wider societal issues too. Pharmaceuticals, and the pharmaceutical industry, can’t easily be lumped into one singular logic either, for they are extremely heterogeneous.

The pharmaceutical context I research, involving the supply of Indian pharmaceuticals to, and local manufacture of medicines in sub-Saharan Africa, is quite distinct from that in North America or Europe. Rather than issues of security centring around bio-terrorism, a key challenge is one of perennial insecurity of lack of secure access to affordable, effective pharmaceuticals.

As someone who thinks pharmaceuticals are particularly important for development, and not just for economic reasons, this was a fascinating opportunity to participate in a truly multi-disciplinary conversation. Rather than being confined by disciplinary boundaries, we were able to discuss and debate multiple different angles on the life of this curious industry.

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