Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

A Potent Breakthrough

March 27, 1998

Like the reliable erection its new product promised, Pfizer's stock had risen 21% in the previous two months. Some urologists bought rubber stamps so they could churn out prescriptions, and equally excited patients booked advance appointments. Despite all that, Viagra, the world's most popular prescription party drug, didn't have much of a party the day the FDA gave its much-anticipated O.K. to sildenafil citrate. That's because giant pharmaceutical companies — even ones that get a license from the government to print money in blue-pill form — aren't really party places. "We had a nice dinner that night," admits Dr. Ian Osterloh, who directed the development of the impotence treatment.

The drug, originally designed to treat angina (patients still had angina, but some also noted a different kind of agitation they had not had in some time), was approved as expected on the final day of the FDA's six-month priority review. News of the approval immediately went up on the FDA website, the first time the agency notified the public of its decision in real time. And then the world celebrated: Cocoon was played out in every Florida retirement community, marriages moved on to deeper problems, the porn industry was democratized and talk-show hosts got a new way to tell Bill Clinton jokes.