Impasse over marketing of drugs stalls trade talks
ATLANTA— Negotiators from the United States and 11 other nations struggled Saturday to break an impasse on an expansive Pacific Rim trade accord backed by the Obama administration, setting up what could be amake-or-break final day of talks.
Trade ministers agreed to extend their stay for a fifth day here to give themselves another shot Sunday at reaching consensus Sunday on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The largest freetrade and regulatory pact in a generation has been beset by lingering disputes that have left officials fearful that they are running out of time if they don’t close out the pact this weekend.
A fierce divide between the United States and Australia over market exclusivity for the creators of next-generation biologic drugs has stalled the talks, which officials had hoped would be wrapped up already. Differences over market access for dairy exports also remained unresolved, though officials said they were hopeful that could be bridged once the other issue was settled.
“Progress has been made, but negotiations are still ongoing,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is running for reelection this month, told reporters during a campaign stop Saturday in Montreal.
An all-night negotiating session at the Westin hotel, where the ministers are meeting, failed to produce significant progress on the thorniest issues. The main dispute centers on how long pharmaceutical companies will maintain exclusive marketing rights to genetically engineered medicines.
U.S. law provides companies 12 years of protection for the data that underlies the creation of the drugs, preventing other companies from using the initial research to develop similar products that public health advocates said could reduce costs in poorer countries.
U.S. negotiators proposed a compromise period of eight years of market exclusivity in the TPP, while Australia has refused to budge from the five years provided under its own laws.
“Making sure people in poor countries have access to life-saving medicine is our moral responsibility,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, wrote on a Twitter post Saturday.
Pharmaceutical companies have countered that weaker protections would reduce incentives for developing the new genetically engineered medicines. In a sign of the high stakes, President Obama spoke by phone Thursday with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in an attempt to spur the talks.
“TPP partners continue to work on creative solutions toward agreement,” said a U.S. official, who was not authorized to talk on the record and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “TPP partners are committed to finding a solution that ensures life-saving medicines are more widely available, while also creating incentives for the development of new treatments and cures.”
The TPP nations failed to complete the deal during a previous negotiating round in Hawaii in July.