By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's administration on Monday sought to allay concerns that its push for stronger drug patent protections in a Transpacific trade deal would raise the cost of life-saving drugs out of the reach of many of the region's poor people.
"The Obama administration is coordinating and deploying trade policy tools to help reduce potential barriers to access to medicines, while also supporting innovation and the development of new medicines by the U.S. pharmaceutical and other health industries," the U.S. Trade Representative's office said in a paper obtained by Reuters.
The United States and eight other countries currently are holding the eighth round of talks on the proposed Transpacific Partnership pact through Thursday in Chicago.
The negotiations are at a critical stage with the countries aiming for the "broad outlines" of a deal by the time Obama hosts the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting November 12-13 in Honolulu.
Groups such as Doctor Without Borders have raised concern about "hard-line intellectual property policies" in the TPP pact that they said could greatly diminish access to affordable medicines for millions of people.
TPP countries include the United States, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
Other countries such as Japan, Canada, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines have expressed interest in joining the pact, which proponents hope will eventually be extended to all 21 members of APEC, which also includes China, Russia, Mexico and several other large economies.
In its paper, USTR said the United States was proposing a "TPP access window" that would promote the availability of innovative life-saving and life-enhancing medicines and simultaneously establish a pathway for generic versions to enter those markets as quickly as possible.
This would be done by conditioning a country's obligations to apply certain pharmaceutical-specific intellectual property protections to a requirement that innovators bring medicines to TPP markets within an agreed window of time, USTR said.
USTR said its proposal will help generic drug manufacturers by providing "patent exceptions and incentives for generic medicines, while maintaining a balance of intellectual protection for innovators."
The U.S. proposal also reaffirms the commitment of TPP countries to the World Trade Organization's Doha Declaration, USTR said. That 2001 pledge emphasized the WTO's intellectual property rules do not and should not prevent member governments from acting to protect public health.
In the TPP talks, the United States also is calling for tougher customs and criminal enforcement measures on counterfeit drugs and for transparent and fair rules governing government healthcare reimbursement programs for drugs.
It outlined proposals outside intellectual property protection realm that it said would improve the availability of medicines.
Those include eliminating duties on all drugs and medical devices within the TPP region, with a special emphasis on any existing tariffs for amoxicillan, penicillin and anti-malarial medicines, USTR said.
It also is proposing to reduce "unnecessary regulatory barriers" that impede trade in life-saving drugs and to ensure rules for the exportation, importation and internal distribution of medicines do not restrict access.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Doina Chiacu)