VIAGRA IS A remarkable pharmaceutical object, and an even more remarkable social phenomenon. Its 1998 release was accompanied by media attention on a scale barely precedented for any medicine, let alone one that doesn't actually save lives. It swiftly became a global social phenomenon, turning an embarrassing and sometimes distressing personal condition into a recognized medical problem, susceptible to a pharmaceutical solution. “Erectile dysfunction” went from being a condition that people rarely talked about, to one that they couldn't stop talking about. In doing so, Viagra helped extend the boundaries of medicalization, accelerating the trend to label any deviation from supposedly normal human well being as a condition for which medical treatment, in some form or another, should be available.
What then is Viagra? It cannot be wholly defined by what it is made of, what it is for, by what it looks like, or by what it does when the human body absorbs it—essential features though these might be. But these aside, Viagra's identity, status, and value are determined by the regulatory regimes that control its use, and the intellectual property rights used to protect it. Although we can describe Viagra as a “sildenafilcontaining erectile dysfunction treatment in the form of a blue diamond-shaped tablet,” the drug is a kind-of legal construct created by intellectual property law, whose boundaries are defined by the scope of these rights, the freedoms of others, and the edges of the public domain.
Viagra is a highly specific product in pill form containing a single active ingredient and other substances called “excipients,” which protect the active ingredient on its journey through the body, control its rate of absorption, and enhance palatability. Scientifically, the active ingredient can be identified as l-[[3-(6,7-dihydro-lmethyl7- oxo-3 -propyl-1 H-pyrazolo [4,3 -d] pyrimidin-5-yl)4-ethoxyphenyl]sulphonyl]- 4-methylpiperazine or C22H30N6O4S; and it has the generic pharmaceutical name of “sildenafil citrate.”
To say that Viagra is sildenafil citrate is a simple statement of fact, but it obscures the ränge of ways in which Pfizer has used the intellectual property system to shape our understanding of Viagra. Sildenafil purposely disrupts a naturally occurring enzyme called phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5), and the drug was developed initially to deal with disorders like hypertension and angina.