I did a double-take when I came across a headline on the Medecins Sans Frontieres website the other day: “Medecins Sans Frontieres welcomes the introduction of a new open-source user-friendly drug combination against malaria.” The notion of “open source” is very familiar to me in my day-to-day work as a web-server administrator, conjuring up thoughts of the Linux operating system and free programs such as techie faves PHP and MySQL. Little did I know the concept had resonance in the worlds of healthcare and activism.
Open-source software is that whose actual code is freely available for anyone to use, modify or share, rather than guarded by proprietary methods to preserve a corporation’s profits. Its advocates argue that it can be developed and improved more rapidly—and the price tag is nice as well, especially for individuals and non-profits. Now physicians, scientists and activists are taking this model and applying it to the world of pharmaceutical development.
Big Pharma is driven by profit, which means they don’t devote adequate resources to combatting the specific diseases that affect the global poor. So a movement is emerging to foster international scientific collaboration on medical development, resulting in the release of drugs that are patent-free, making them dramatically more accessible to those in need. In the case of MSF’s announcement, a new anti-malaria formulation has been released that is cheaper and easier to use than the standard treatment—a critical advance against a disease that kills over a million people a year.
Come to think of it, this open-source model reminds me a lot of my earliest involvement in direct-action politics, where many people got together and freely shared ideas in order to accomplish social change. Despite my initial surprise, I guess the idea isn’t so unexpected after all.