Affordable Medicines Advocates Help Derail the Transpacific Partnership

by Vins
Published: Updated:

After six years of negotiations, the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) is dead. While establishment media focused on Donald Trump’s intent to stop the TPP, James Trimarco reported for YES! Magazine on how “a small, international group of affordable-medicine advocates” worked to undermine the TPP’s passage “in a years-long drama that pitted consumer advocacy against corporate interests.” By “relentlessly” showing how components of the TPP would raise prescription drug prices, advocates “helped delay the deal long enough to make it vulnerable to political attack.” Doctors Without Borders, Public Citizen, and Oxfam did not have seats at the secretive TPP negotiating table, but nonetheless played a critical role in bringing further TPP negotiations to a halt by establishing trust and alliances with representatives from nations involved in crafting the TPP.

Working this way, advocates and negotiators successfully got the United States Trade Representative to relent on its demands that bioengineered varieties of plants and animals should be patented, and that generic drug applications would be automatically blocked if a patent had already been claimed. Most negotiators from countries involved in crafting the TPP wanted affordable medicines.

The battle became more pitched, Trimarco reports, when it came to intellectual property rights for the makers of a new and expensive class of drugs—called biologics—that are potentially work billions of dollars. Trimarco writes, “Biologics are something relatively new in medicine. Most traditional treatments consist of relatively small molecules; you can draw the chemical structure for ibuprofen, for example, with just a hexagon and two small, branching lines. The complex molecules that make up biologics can be hundreds, even thousands, of times larger—and, unlike traditional drugs, they’re manufactured within living cells.” The most promising new treatments for cancers and arthritis, for instance, involve biologics.

Big Pharma sought what are known as “exclusivities,” which, Trimarco describes, “effectively give the original manufacturer of the drug a legal monopoly for a certain period of time. That’s in addition to patents, which drug companies feel don’t sufficiently protect biologics.” Exclusivities and patents would delay how long competitors must wait until they begin manufacturing and marketing lower-priced, generic versions of the drugs—“known as ‘biosimilars’ because biologics can’t be copied exactly.”

The United States Trade Representatives sought 12 years of protection under the TPP, the same as is currently established in the US under the Affordable Care Act. This is the longest protection period in the world, Trimarco reports: Japan allows 10 years, and Australia and Mexico permit just five years, while other countries offer no monopoly period at all. While the US pushed for 12 years, other countries began to organize as a bloc against its position on biologics.

As Trimarco summarizes, “It’s difficult to know exactly how much influence the affordable-medicine advocates had. But in the end, the delay over biologics helped push the TPP into a turbulent election cycle, where it came to symbolize much of what frustrated American voters.”

Source: James Trimarco, “How a Battle Over Affordable Medicine Helped Kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” YES! Magazine, November 18, 2016,

Student Researcher: Nick Wolfer (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)