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

Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Dave Weatherall via Unsplash.

The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) has been highly controversial since it was concluded in 1995. Since then, the United States’ pursuit of higher intellectual property (IP) protection (TRIPS-Plus) for medicines in bilateral and multilateral agreements has been well recognized. As a result, the proliferation of post-TRIPS “free” trade agreements has been characterized by increasing levels of IP protections for pharmaceuticals, with provisions intended to prolong monopolies, support high prices and frustrate market entry of generic medicines.

A journal article in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics by Ruth Lopert and Deborah Gleeson scans the evolution of post TRIPS intellectual property rights (IPRs), with particular attention to the IP provisions of the Australia-US (AUSFTA) and Korea-US (KORUS) free trade agreements. The authors also draw attention to the US efforts to gain greater influence over the domestic pharmaceutical coverage policies of its trading partners.

The journal article highlights how the US, by pursuing an aggressive trade agenda, has sought to influence the laws and policies of other countries in two important ways. First, by pushing trading partners to enact laws that create IP provisions for pharmaceuticals well above and beyond those required by TRIPS. Second, by exporting US policy settings, driving changes to trading partners’ efforts to establish normative standards for programs to promote pharmaceutical access and coverage. The authors argue that these changes are antithetical to public health because they prioritize the profits of pharmaceutical companies over the universally relevant public health goal of affordable access to medicines.

Read the Journal Article