The Obama administration on Monday sought to allay concerns that the US push for stronger drug patent protections in a Transpacific trade deal would raise the cost of life-saving treatments out of the reach of the region's poor people.
Global healthcare activists accused the White House of mainly protecting the profits of big U.S. pharmaceutical companies, which say they need strong patent protections to recoup the costs of developing new drugs.
The controversy shows the pressure the White House faces on both sides of the issue as it pushes forward on a landmark trade deal it hopes will help create new jobs.
"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 US pharmaceutical and other health industries," the US Trade Representative's office said in a paper obtained by Reuters.
The United States and eight other countries are holding the eighth round of talks on the proposed Transpacific Partnership pact through Thursday in Chicago.
The negotiations are at a critical stage as the countries aim for the "broad outlines" of a deal by the time President Barack Obama hosts the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting on November 12-13 in Hawaii.
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, 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. Proponents hope it 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" to promote availability of innovative life-saving and life-enhancing medicines and set up a pathway for generic versions to enter those markets as quickly as possible.
Judit Rius Sanjuan, US manager of the Doctors Without Borders campaign for access to essential medicines, said the paper failed to acknowledge intellectual property protections are the main impediment to ensuring access to affordable life-saving medicines.
Sanjuan said she doubted the effectiveness of speeding access to brand-name drugs because "we know the prices will be too high and the generics will be delayed."
Matthew Kavanagh, a campaigner for the advocacy group Health GAP, was also skeptical.
"This is not an access plan, it's a clear subterfuge toward ensuring the Obama administration can continue to carry the water of big pharma," he said.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 37 senators released a letter calling for 12 years of data protection for vaccines and other "biologics" in the TPP pact.
"Because intellectual property rights are a cornerstone for job creation and American competitiveness, we urge you to ensure that the U.S. negotiators are given clear instructions to attain this negotiating objective," the senators said in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.
The US 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.