The High Price of “Free” Trade: U.S. Trade Agreements and Access to Medicines


  • Ruth Lopert,

    1. Recently returned to the Australian drugs and therapeutics regulatory agency, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), following two years in Washington, D.C as Visiting Professor in the Department of Health Policy, at George Washington University (GW).
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  • Deborah Gleeson

    1. Lecturer in the School of Public Health and Human Biosciences at La Trobe University.
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The United States' pursuit of increasingly TRIPS-Plus levels of intellectual property protection for medicines in bilateral and regional trade agreements is well recognized. Less so, however, are U.S. efforts through these agreements to influence and constrain the pharmaceutical coverage programs of its trading partners. Although arguably unsuccessful in the Australia- U.S. Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA), the U.S. nevertheless succeeded in its bilateral FTA with South Korea (KORUS) in establishing prescriptive provisions pertaining to the operation of coverage and reimbursement programs for medicines and medical devices, which have the potential to adversely impact future access in that country. More recently, draft texts leaked from the current Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) negotiations show that U.S. objectives include not only AUSFTA-Plus and KORUS-Plus IP provisions but also ambitious inroads into the domestic health programs of its TPPA partners. This highlights the apparent conflict between trade goals — pursued through multilateral legal instruments to promote economic “health”— and public health objectives, such as the development of treatments for neglected diseases, the pursuit of efficiency and equity in priority setting, and the procurement of medicines at prices that reflect their therapeutic value and facilitate affordable access.