Glaxo’s ‘Linux Approach’ – PR Stunt or Candle in the Gloom?

It’s no longer uncommon to see Linux mentioned in the mainstream media, but a recent headline in The Wall Street Journal made this reporter stop and take pause.

“Glaxo Tries a Linux Approach,” reads the headline, referring to GlaxoSmithKline’s recent decision to share some research data online as part of its quest for new drugs.

Specifically, the company recently opened up the designs behind 13,500 chemical compounds thought to be candidates for fighting malaria. The hope, presumably, is that — just as in software development — many eyes are better than just a few.

‘Cautiously, Quietly Applauding’

To Linux Girl’s mind, the headline is notable not just for the step Glaxo has taken, impressive as that may or may not be. It’s also remarkable for the WSJ’s use of the phrase, “Linux approach,” and the underlying assumption that it would mean something to a majority of readers.

No doubt for those reasons and more, the news also made a big splash on the Linux blogs.

“I hope, sincerely, that this is the start of more collaborative efforts on the part of drug companies,” wrote one Anonymous Coward on Slashdot, for example. “We’re quick to bash them but I believe we should applaud this effort.”

Similarly: “I’ll be cautiously, quietly applauding from a far corner, until I can figure out what exactly their ulterior motives are,” agreed another. “They want my trust, and this is a good first step, but boy-oh-boy do they have an uphill battle before them.”

‘May I Lick Your Boot Now, Sir?’

Then again: “Most of the countries where Malaria is prevalent are not rich countries,” somenickname pointed out. “However, most people have heard the word Malaria and, even if they don’t know what it is or how you get it, this announcement sounds impressive to them.

“Dengue Fever is also common in many of the areas of the world where Malaria is but they aren’t releasing that research,” somenickname added. “Why? Because no one has heard of it so it’s not an effective PR stunt.”

Even more so: “Oh thank you sir. I’m so greatful sir,” chimed in syousef. “Only sir do you think sir that you might find it in your heart sir to not lock up my own genome sir? I was hoping that we who share the genome sir would be able to use it to fight disease sir along with all those other drugs sir that you filed for first sir but you see sir if you lock it up sir many of us will die sir. May I lick your boot now sir?”

And a little comic relief: “Does this mean that Glaxo are now communists??” pondered efexis on LWN.

Similar sentiments could be heard down at the Linux blogosphere’s Broken Windows Lounge.

‘Trusting Big Pharma Is Like Trusting Microsoft’

“If a pharmaceutical company appears to be doing something positive, you can bet there is an agenda hidden behind the action,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza opined. “It may be so simple as that they have not found a way to profit from these illnesses, or that patents covering the initial research are about to expire.”

Big Pharma “is one of a few primary enemies that humanity faces today, along with the Military-Industrial complex, Big Media, Big Oil and so forth,” Espinoza added.

“Trusting Big Pharma to act in the best interests of humanity is like trusting Microsoft to make a version of Windows that makes sense or trusting ATI to make a video driver that doesn’t fail all over itself,” he said.

‘A First Step, But That’s All’

Indeed, “it is like how MSFT have started having a dialog with Open Source, even setting up an open source website for code,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet agreed. “While it’s nice they did that, it doesn’t erase the history of nasty behavior by MSFT to FLOSS, just as opening up these drugs doesn’t erase the price gouging they’ve done in the past. It is a first step, but that’s all.”

Glaxo most likely made the move “because a) it is good PR, and — most importantly — b) there really isn’t any money to be made in malaria,” hairyfeet asserted. “The places that have outbreaks of malaria are nearly always poorer nations, which means these drugs simply aren’t profitable. Personally, I’d bet the next drugs to be ‘open sourced’ like this will be antibiotics, which are also not real money makers.”

Glaxo, meanwhile, can then “get some good PR, pass research of these drugs off onto the community, and concentrate on the drugs that DO make serious money — the so called ‘rich people’s diseases’ of hypertension, ED, obesity, heart attack, etc.,” he concluded.

‘Maybe It Will Catch On’

Similarly, “I suspect the main reason they are ‘open inventing’ is that malaria primarily affects poor people,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack agreed. “Passing most of the work off on other people makes them look very good while minimizing their own spending on something they will make almost no money on.”

On the other hand, “if this does well, then maybe it will catch on with smaller, more innovative drug companies, who can start to sell things at a reasonable rate rather than make a multibillion-dollar profit,” Mack added.

In fact, “Malaria affects 1,200 Americans every year, and drug resistance is becoming a problem,” noted Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site. “Complete drug resistance would have serious consequences everywhere.”


Glaxo’s move is a PR stunt “only if you overlook that Glaxo put up the data and pushed other companies to join in doing the same,” Hudson asserted. “Glaxo ‘gets it’ that it’s possible to grow the pie for everyone by sharing, same as open source software does.

“This is the sort of healthy competition that can benefit everyone,” she added. Of course, “I think Richard Stallman would prefer GNU/Glaxo :-)”

Ultimately, “the FLOSS approach is applicable to many large problems: analyzing DNA, decryption, factoring primes, finding AF447 black boxes … any problem that is expensive to solve but interesting to many people can be solved very efficiently using an open approach,” agreed blogger Robert Pogson.

‘No Telling How Far It Will Go’

Businesses that neglect the possibilities of openness “will take a back seat” to businesses that tap those possibilities, “whether on the desktop, in research or in establishing markets and credibility,” Pogson added.

In fact, “one of the prime differences between opened and closed is that the probability of success is much higher with open,” he opined. “If there is a solution, openness will find it sooner or later; with the closed approach, it is much easier to have some bean-counter turn off the tap.”

In short, Pogson concluded, “once a fire is lit in an open world, there is no telling how far it will go.”

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