After five years of negotiations, Trans-Pacific trade talks near deal

Japanese trade minister Akira Amari (centre) speaks to media during a break in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks in Atlanta, Georgia,
Japanese trade minister Akira Amari (centre) speaks to media during a break in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks in Atlanta, Georgia, PHOTO: REUTERS

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 United States, 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 compromise would preserve Australia's existing five-year protection period but would also offer flexibility on longer drug monopolies, potentially creating two tracks on future drug pricing within the trading bloc, a person close to the negotiations said.

The terms of that compromise, hammered out after a third all-night round of negotiations between Australia and the United States, still had to find support from other nations such as Chile and Peru, other people involved in the talks said.

Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said he could not reveal details of the compromise on biologics "until everyone has signed up and we are all on the same page." But officials were increasingly confident of completing a deal 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.

The United States offers 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 trade pact, the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, would lower tariffs and set common standards for 12 economies led by the United States and Japan, which together account for 40 percent 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 United States 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 Motor, 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 like Canada, Mexico, Japan and the United States.

If US 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.