US negotiators at the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks in Chicago have published a new initiative which seeks to use trade policy to boost access to innovative and generic medicines in TPP partner countries.

The Trade Enhancing Access to Medicines (TEAM) initiative is also designed to promote trade and reduce obstacles to access to medicines, "while supporting the innovation that is vital to developing new medicines and achieving other medical breakthroughs," says the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR), which issued the proposals during the current round of TPP negotiations in Chicago.

Under the TEAM approach, the US says, it proposes to work with its TPP partners - Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam - to achieve the following goals in a TPP agreement: - expedite access to innovative and generic medicines through a "TPP access window;" - enhance legal certainty for manufacturers of generics; - eliminate tariffs of medicines; - reduce customs obstacles to medicines; - curb trade in counterfeit medicines; - reduce internal barriers to distribution of medicines; - promote transparency and procedural fairness; - minimise unnecessary regulatory barriers; - and reaffirm TPP parties' commitment to the Doha Declaration on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) and Public Health.

"The TEAM initiative reflects fresh thinking about trade and access to medicines. It is about more than allowing access to medicines. It is about working with trading partners to develop strong and common standards to help drive access," says the USTR document.

"The truth is, trade policy by itself can't address all the challenges of access to medicines, but we believe trade policy can be a meaningful component of the Obama Administration's broad effort to promote that access," said the USTR, Ambassador Ron Kirk.

The US proposals "will help drive access to innovative and generic medicines, through tariff cuts, intellectual property provisions and a host of other measures that will help to boost the availability of life-saving innovative and generic medicines to people throughout the Asia-Pacific region," he added.

However, critics of the US position accuse the USTR of releasing its proposals on the same day that it tabled provisions which, they say, will actually restrict access to medicines under the proposed trade deal. The content of the TPP negotiations are confidential but the US provisions have been leaked. 

And, according to Professor Sean Flynn of the American University Washington College of Law, they show that "the Administration is proposing to grant patent rights on substances that are already discovered, increase in-transit seizures on medicines, extend monopoly rights through data protection that operate independent of patent rights, get rid of the so-called 'May 10th' deal with the Bush Administration and Congress protecting key access to medicines flexibilities in developing countries, and add a first-ever restriction on the operation of pharmaceutical reimbursement programmes as a cost-saving mechanism in developing countries."

Other critics have deplored the closed-door nature of the TPP negotiations and the fact that only the final agreed text will be made public. "Regional and bilateral trade negotiations, including the TPP, should be conducted in an open and transparent manner that allows for participation by civil society and other relevant stakeholders, and ensure that public health needs are given adequate attention," says international aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

The current round of TPP negotiations (Round 8) is expected to continue in Chicago to September 15.