A wide-ranging Asia-Pacific free trade agreement will not hinder access to affordable medication, the US commerce secretary said on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit that concluded on 8 October in Bali, Indonesia.
"Obviously the United States wants the world population to have access to good medicines, so we're not trying to stand in the way of that," said Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
But activists remain concerned after the closed-door trade talks concluded among the U.S., Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the most recent country to enter the talks, Japan.
In advance of the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urged countries not to bow to US intellectual property demands.
MSF accused the US government of proposing “the most egregious intellectual property provisions ever seen in a proposed trade deal”, and warned in a recent press release against a situation where “leaders trade away health” and harm access to affordable medication.
"In the TPP, the US is demanding countries to go beyond their international obligations [under the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights - TRIPS] and grant patent monopolies for longer periods, and to grant new non-patent based monopolies [such as data exclusivity]," Judit Ruis, an MSF manager in the US, told IRIN.
The agency says US proposals in the TPP negotiations create ways for multinational pharmaceutical companies to extend their patents on medicines through a common pharmaceutical industry practice known as “evergreening” - which would guarantee these companies’ continued stranglehold on the market.
By blocking competition from cheaper generic drugs, such an extension will keep medicine prices high for longer, according to MSF.
Ruis said pharmaceutical companies in the US have demanded 12 years of data exclusivity for “biologics”, which are medical products (like vaccines) consisting of living matter such as human cells, bacteria and yeast.
US trade representatives declined to comment on the negotiations.
Intellectual property is one of several areas TPP countries are still debating. They had agreed to reinforce TRIPS, which allows countries to override patents - for public health purposes - by issuing "compulsory licenses" that enable the generic manufacture of drugs still under patent.
Ruis said TRIPS, in effect since 1994, has increased the cost of medical care and made innovation more difficult.
Intellectual property matters to be finalized for the TPP include: trademarks, geographical indications, copyright and related rights, patents, trade secrets, data required for the approval of certain regulated products, as well as intellectual property enforcement, genetic resources and traditional knowledge.
TPP countries had agreed to include in the final agreement a commitment to the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health signed in 2011, which seeks “to promote access to medicines for all”.
But this pledge is not enough for MSF, which has raised concern that the US is proposing differential treatment on intellectual property, temporarily exempting the poorest countries in negotiations from some of the provisions.
“However, this would still leave these countries with intellectual property provisions that far exceed what is required under international trade rules, which themselves are already choking off the supply of affordable medicines in developing countries,” the NGO warned.
US Commerce Secretary Pritzker noted otherwise. "The objective of the TPP is to create a high quality agreement and to create standards so that those who create intellectual property have appropriate protection around the world.”
Business interests, notably the pharmaceutical industry, have criticized compulsory licensing decrees implemented by Indonesia and India as unwarranted, even moving to block a compulsory license recently in India for a cancer drug, according to a pharmaceutical industry trade publication.
The US government is seeking to boost through TPP exports to the Asia-Pacific region, which includes 800 million people and accounts for roughly 40 percent of global trade (and where some 60 percent of US goods are already exported).
US Trade Representative Michael Froman said in Bali that delegates made significant progress on the pact, and the US remains hopeful a deal will be reached by the end of the year.
Negotiators are expected to meet in November to address remaining contentious issues.