Stefan Elbe recently visited Royal Holloway to give a fascinating and insightful lecture on what he understood to be the pharmaceuticalization of security.
Elbe structured the lecture around two potential threats to national security: bioterrorism, exemplified by the sending of letters laced with anthrax to media figures within the US on the 18th September, 2001; and pandemics, exemplified by the outbreak of SARS on the 21st February, 2003. Initially addressing the methods of pharmaceuticalization, Elbe then conceptualised the process within International Relations. He argued that by looking at government responses to bioterrorism and pandemics, pharmaceuticals could be seen as fully integrated into national security measures. These kinds of threats have led to both the stock-piling of pharmaceuticals, and an increase of government funding to the research and development of new drugs. The Strategic National Stockpile in the US means that medicine can be dispersed around the entire country within 12 hours. In the United Kingdom, the National Pandemic Flu Service bypasses the usual prescriptions required by British citizens to obtain medicine, using a phone and online service to hasten the diagnosis and distribution of medicine to potentially infected people. These government organisations manage the distribution of antivirus medicine to citizens, the next step on from what Elbe sees as the institutionalisation of R&D regarding protective pharmaceuticals.
After presenting the growing trend towards medical counter-measures in modern national security, Elbe argued that this process is incredibly politicised, driven by a number of factors including: advances in medicine, societal expectations, growing alliances between knowledge and capital, and the limited production capacities of pharmaceuticals.
On a scientific level, advances in life sciences have led to a greater understanding of how vaccinations work on a molecular level, and how best to engineer and develop them. Inevitably, the relationship between what Elbe calls ‘new knowledge and capital’ leads to the commercial exploitation of medicine. In line with these factors is growing societal expectations of accessibility to the latest, and most effective medicine. Due to the political implications of societal demands and potential threats, these expectations can inform policy, and influence international relations. Health sells in a financial sense, but also on a political level too.
The stock piling of pharmaceuticals such as Tamiflu, in preparation for an outbreak of a virus such as avian flu, is a reflection of governments reacting to both the expectations of society and to a potential threat. The limited production capacity of companies producing these drugs means that the drug itself becomes heavily politicised on the international stage. A map showing the population percentages that governments could potentially supply with Tamiflu, showed that there is an unequal distribution of the drug. Whilst the UK can supply it to 80% of its populations, others cannot come close to that. In parts of Asia there appeared to be no available data of accessibility of the anti-viral. The attempt to balance this led to the World Health Organisation reserving 3 million Tamiflu pills that could be distributed to infected areas that were without access to the antivirus , as an measure of containment as much as good-will aid.
Following on from the lecture, Elbe spoke of the relationship between the Bush Administration and Gilead Sciences, the company who developed and produced Tamiflu. Numerous members of the Bush Administration, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfled, saw their shares in Gilead Sciences soar after George Bush declared the stock piling of Tamiflu as a necessary measure in national security. Whilst Elbe did not express any direct cynicism towards this, it was a poignant example of how the financial and political worlds can use health security to their advantage.
Elbe concluded his lecture by referring to the ‘Cold-War like performances ’ by the US Government with regards to their preparations if a bioterror attack occurred. The post-Cold-War blues assuaged by a new and equally destructive threat to focus on, and a fresh angle with which to conduct elaborate scenarios of future disasters around. The potential threat of bioterrorism, and a heightened fear of pandemics from both the political and societal level, has allowed pharmaceutical companies to grow into financial giants, and the securitization of public health to become part of the lexicon of national security.
Christopher is working towards an MSc in Geopolitics and Security at Royal Holloway, a course he became interested in during his undergraduate study in Geography, Politics and International Relations.