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Trans-Pacific Partnership talks near deal after five years of debate

Pacific nation trade ministers seeking a deal for a free trade pact appear to be near agreement after five years of debate. The breakthrough came amid protests in Atlanta, after five days and nights of negotiations.

The stumbling block to a sweeping trade pact for Pacific nations had been over the length of monopoly for new biotech drugs. Protesters gathered outside the hotel where the talks were being held in Atlanta, Georgia to voice their concerns (photo above).

On Sunday, the US appeared to have reached a compromise with Australia and five other delegations at the talks. "We have largely completed with the Americans but then there are 10 other countries," said Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb. "I understand there are still two or three at most who have to work their way through."

Three all-night sessions of negotiations were needed to find an apparent compromise. Drug makers are to have a minimum threshold of five years during which they would have exclusive rights to clinical data behind new drugs. They would then have additional protection of several more years as applications for competing drugs were reviewed.

Under a second track, pharmaceutical companies would have eight years of exclusive rights to a new product outright in some countries.

Pharmaceutical companies had been pushing the US delegation to hold a hard line. The US had argued for longer protections for new biotech drugs - some 12 years of exclusivity for drugs such as Genentech's Avastin cancer therapy.

On the other hand, Australia argued such lengths for exclusivity would put national healthcare budgets under strain and prevent patients who could not afford them from gaining access to life-saving medicines.

According to Reuters, Chile and Peru had not signed up to the compromise proposal as of Sunday afternoon. An afternoon press conference to announce the deal on Sunday was delayed.

Japan's Economy Minister Akira Amari said he had called Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to notify him that a deal was within sight.

'21st century trade rules'

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.

The talks are between representatives of 12 countries comprising 40 percent of the global economy including Canada, New Zealand and Mexico. The latest round of talks has continued three days past the scheduled end.

The United States has been the main motivator for the trade deal, which it wants to use as a foundation for "21st century trade rules." It would set standards on trade, investment, data flows and intellectual property that eventually non-TPP members, particularly China, would have to accept.

Opponents to the pact have questioned what it would mean for jobs in manufacturing and environmental protection.

jm/cmk (Reuters, AFP)

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