Atlanta | Reuters — A dozen Pacific nations closed in on a sweeping free trade pact on Sunday in Atlanta after a breakthrough over how long a monopoly pharmaceutical companies should be given on new biotech drugs.
The issue has pitted the U.S., which has argued for longer protections, against Australia and five other delegations who say such measures would strain national healthcare budgets and keep life-saving medicines from patients who cannot afford them.
The terms of that compromise, hammered out after a third all-night round of negotiations between Australia and the U.S., still had to find support from other nations such as Chile and Peru as of Sunday afternoon, people involved in the talks said.
The U.S. has 12 years of exclusivity for the clinical data used in developing drugs like cancer therapy Avastin, developed by Genentech, a division of Roche in order to encourage innovation. Australia insisted on five years of protection to bring down drug prices more quickly.
The two-track compromise would set a minimum threshold of five years during which drug makers would have exclusive rights to clinical data behind new drugs while adding an additional protection of several more years as applications for competing drugs are reviewed, people involved said.
Under a second track, pharmaceutical companies would have eight years of exclusive rights to a new product outright in some countries, they said.
It was still unclear how that set of standards would influence pricing for future drugs and whether it would go far enough to meet the demands of the pharmaceutical industry, which has pushed the U.S. delegation to draw a hard line on the issue.
TPP organizers pushed back plans for an afternoon news conference where ministers were expected to announce the trade deal.
But officials were increasingly confident of completing a wide-reaching trade agreement that has been in negotiations for five years. Japan’s Economy Minister Akira Amari said he had called Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to notify him that a deal was within sight.
“He was very pleased,” Amari said of Abe’s reaction.
The trade pact — the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP — would lower tariffs and set common standards for 12 economies led by the U.S. and Japan, which together account for 40 per cent of global output.
U.S. President Barack Obama has pushed for a deal as a way to open markets to U.S. exports, including financial services and pharmaceuticals. U.S. officials have also promoted the deal as a counterweight to China and that rising power’s vision for Asia.
The talks in Atlanta were extended by 24 hours to a fifth day on Sunday. A handful of protesters unfurled a “Stop TPP” banner at the Westin hotel, where the talks were taking place, on Sunday morning. They were escorted away by security and police.
By Saturday, the U.S. and Japan had reached agreement in principle on trade in autos and auto parts in talks that had also included Canada and Mexico. That agreement is expected to give U.S. automakers, led by General Motors and Ford, two decades or more of tariff protection against low-cost pickup truck imports from Thailand or elsewhere in Asia, people briefed on the talks have said.
But the TPP deal taking shape would also give Japan’s auto industry, led by Toyota, a freer hand to source parts from Asia, including from plants outside the TPP-zone like China, on vehicles sold in North America.
A “rule of origin” would stipulate that only 45 per cent of a vehicle would have to be sourced from within the TPP, down from the equivalent ratio of 62.5 per cent under NAFTA, officials have said.
New Zealand wants to ensure its dairy industry, dominated by Fonterra, the world’s largest dairy exporter, comes out as a clear winner in a TPP deal by opening markets such as Canada, Mexico, Japan and the U.S.
New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser said Saturday his country’s demands were not unrealistic.
“New Zealand is not going to be pushed out of this negotiation. We are not shooting for the stars, we have got a completely realistic vision of what can be achieved, this is absolutely doable,” he said.
If U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, who is chairing the Atlanta talks, manages to steer them to a conclusion on Sunday, that would mark the start of a political fight to get the deal approved in the United States.
The Obama administration relied on Republican votes to win fast-track trade negotiating authority from Congress in July, setting up a straight yes or no vote on any deal.
Many Democrats and labour groups have raised questions about what the TPP would mean for jobs in manufacturing and environmental protections.
Meanwhile Republicans, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, the powerful chairman of the Senate finance committee, have urged the administration to hold the line on intellectual property protections, including for biologic drugs.
— Reporting for Reuters by Krista Hughes; additional reporting by Lincoln Feast in Sydney.