The WTO and COVID-19: securing medical and food supplies


By Elizabeth Morgan

COVID-19, as indicated in previous articles, is a trade and health crisis requiring collaboration between the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other trade-related bodies. An important aspect of the treatment of COVID-19 is the trade in medical goods and services. In goods, we are looking at medical supplies, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes clothing, gloves, face coverings; drugs, including vaccines; ventilators and other medical technological devices, some still evolving. In addition, there is concern about the general flow of trade to keep economies functioning and the availability of food supplies. The WTO, therefore, has an important role to play in this pandemic. It is concerned about the contraction of global trade, projecting that it would decline by about 9% in 2020, and about the use of trade policy measures to restrict trade, especially if there is a shortage of medical and food supplies. While the WTO was expecting trade to rebound in 2021, there is still a pessimistic outlook for this year depending on policy measures applied and the ability to contain COVID-19.

In May 2020, the heads of the WTO and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) called on governments not to apply trade restrictions which they felt could be counterproductive, disrupting supply chains, depressing production, and misdirecting critical scarce products. They were also concerned about adequate financing to ensure imports of medical supplies and food. The WHO’s concern is ensuring that developing and least developed countries have access to medical supplies, including vaccines, in adequate quantities and at an affordable price. The WHO Director General has recently expressed his concern about the inequitable access to vaccines noting that the world could be on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure. FAO and the World Food Programme (WFP) are concerned about famine and COVID-19 undermining food and nutrition for billions of people. The WFP fears disastrous food shortages in 2021.

The WTO has been endeavouring to ensure that information is provided to governments and that there is transparency in trade policy measures being applied. Regarding vaccine development, production and distribution, the WTO Secretariat produced a document on “Developing and Delivering COVID-19 Vaccines around the World” which is a checklist of the trade-related issues and outlining the role trade policy can play in ensuring the rapid distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

Proposals to address COVID-19 trade issues

In considering further trade policy measures to address COVID-19 and its economic fallout, WTO Members during 2020 tabled various proposals for adoption by consensus in the General Council in December 2020. These include:

  • Humanitarian Food Aid through the World Food Programme (WFP) – sponsor, Singapore, in its proposal called for Members not to impose export prohibitions and restrictions on foodstuff being procured for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the WFP with the understanding that Members’ food security would not be jeopardized. Some CARICOM countries joined about 100 other Members in supporting this proposal which would be beneficial to WFP. However, India, Tanzania and Pakistan opposed the draft proposal still holding to their position that it would adversely affect national food security programmes and seeking additional assurances.
  • A waiver from specific provisions of the WTO Agreement on Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for medicines, including vaccines – India and South Africa, the sponsors, submitted this proposal under the relevant provisions of the TRIPS Agreement requesting a temporary waiver from patent obligations for medicines, such as new COVID-19 vaccines. This waiver would enable the production of generic versions. India and South Africa have been arguing that such a measure would enable the much faster, more affordable, delivery of vaccines to poorer countries without breaching intellectual property rights (IPRs). Of course, India and South Africa have interest as both produce generic drugs and India has developed its own vaccine. As to be expected, this proposal met opposition from the developed countries/region where vaccine research and development is being done such as, USA, EU, UK & Switzerland. These are now the producers of the Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines. These countries have argued that other measures could be used, such as compulsory licensing, a flexibility already built into the TRIPS Agreement to deal with public health emergencies and which can achieve the goal of getting vaccines to more countries. This discussion is reminiscent of the protracted TRIPS and Public Health deliberations in the early 2000s concerning access to HIV/AIDS drugs. This argument about IPRs and access to medicines in developing countries continues in the WTO and is one of interest to us in CARICOM.
  • Proposal for a Trade and Health Initiative – the EU, Canada and other like-minded countries (known as the Ottawa group) tabled a proposal to increase cooperation among WTO Members and with other organizations to facilitate trade in essential medical goods needed during this pandemic. This proposal suggests action through various trade policy measures. Discussions on this initiative are also continuing in the WTO.

If WTO Members could not achieve consensus in December 2020 on a proposal for humanitarian food aid in support of the 2020 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the WFP, you have to wonder, what can now be agreed at the WTO?

With the administration of President Joe Biden now in office in the USA, it is hoped that an agreement can soon be reached on the new WTO Director General putting new leadership at its helm. Some commonsense decisions are urgently needed from the WTO membership which will be helpful to all in addressing COVID-19.

Submitted by Elizabeth Morgan, Specialist in International Trade Policy and International Politics

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