India

COVAX’s efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to low- and middle income countries — additional momentum from G-7 virtual meeting

With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting populations around the world with more than 110 million people having been infected and with more than 2.4 million deaths, the world is anxiously awaiting vaccines to permit vaccinations for vulnerable populations. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are co-leads of the COVAX initiative which seeks to provide equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines. More than 2 billion vaccine doses have been or are being contracted to supply to 92 low- and middle-income countries as well as other countries who have agreed to buy vaccines through COVAX.

The World Health Organization’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has expressed concern about “vaccine nationalism” as large and wealthier countries have contracted for large amounts of vaccines. In a joint statement with the UNICEF Executive Director on February 10, the WHO DG laid out what is needed in 2021 to achieve vaccine equitable distribution. See In the COVID-19 vaccine race, we either win together or lose together, Joint statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, 10 February 2021, https://www.who.int/news/item/10-02-2021-in-the-covid-19-vaccine-race-we-either-win-together-or-lose-together. The joint statement is embedded below.

In-the-COVID-19-vaccine-race-we-either-win-together-or-lose-together

The problem of vaccine availability can be traced to a number of sources including the inability to predict which development efforts would succeed, efforts by governments to support development through funding and advance contracts which do not always support the early vaccine successes, challenges of approval processes in different countries and more. However, it is clear that in the early days of the vaccine rollout, a handful of countries have been able to obtain the largest amount of vaccine doses and to provide vaccinations to citizens. For example, the Financial Times has an update of its “Covid-19 vaccine tracker: the global race to vaccinate” published today (February 19) that looks at data for 99 countries or territories where vaccinations are reported through mid-February. Of a global total of 194.4 million vaccinations, 91.6% are reported by the following 10 countries or groups of countries: United States, 57.2 million; China 40.5 million; European Union, 24.7 million; United Kingdom, 17.0 million; India, 10.2 million; Israel, 7.1 million; Brazil 6.2 million; Turkey, 5.9 million; United Arab Emirates, 5.4 million; Russian Federation, 3.9 million. Of the 99 countries or territories, 24 reported vaccinations of at least 10/100 residents, an additional 30 reported vaccinations of at least 5.0-9.9/100 residents and an additional 10 reported vaccinations of at least 3.0-4.9/100. Gavi views 3% as the percent of population needed to be vaccinated to address health care workers. See Financial Times, Covid-19 vaccine tracker: the global race to vaccinate, February 19, 2021, https://ig.ft.com/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker/?areas=gbr&areas=usa&areas=eue&areas=ind&cumulative=1&populationAdjusted=0

At today’s G-7 virtual meeting, there were new pledges from G-7 countries to contribute to COVAX to permit the purchase of vaccine doses contracted and with some countries agreeing to share surplus vaccine doses with the world’s poorest countries. The Gavi press release of today is embedded below.

G7-backs-Gavis-COVAX-Advance-Market-Commitment-to-boost-COVID-19-vaccines-in-worlds-poorest-countries-_-Gavi-the-Vaccine-Alliance

In the December 2020 stimulus package, Congress authorized some funding for COVAX. President Biden outlined the U.S. contributions in a Fact Sheet posted on the White House webpage yesterday and at the G-7 virtual meeting today. See White House, Fact Sheet: President Biden to Take Action on Global health through Support of COVAX and Calling for Health Security Financing, February 18, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/02/18/fact-sheet-president-biden-to-take-action-on-global-health-through-support-of-covax-and-calling-for-health-security-financing/; New York Times, Biden Declares ‘America is Back’ on International Stage: Live Updates, February 19, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/02/19/world/g7-meeting-munich-security-conference#global-leaders-chart-a-new-course-in-post-trump-era. The fact sheet is embedded below and reports the U.S. will be contributing $2.0 billion quickly and $2.0 billion more over the remainder of 2021 and 2022.

Fact-Sheet_-President-Biden-to-Take-Action-on-Global-Health-through-Support-of-COVAX-and-Calling-for-Health-Security-Financing-_-The-White-House

Conclusion

Much of the activity at the WTO over the last year has focused on the trade challenges flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic. Trade restrictions on exports of medical goods and agricultural goods have been tracked with various efforts to minimize scope and duration. Efforts at expediting the movement of medical goods and agricultural products have also been pursued, and debates have occurred on whether TRIPS rights should be waived during the pandemic to improve access to medical goods during the pandemic. Most advanced countries with pharmaceutical producers have argued that there are sufficient flexibilities within the WTO TRIPS Agreement to handle the current challenges. At the same time over recent years there have been efforts through the WHO, CEPI and GAVI and with the assistance of UNICEF to provide the infrastructure to permit collective purchasing of vaccines and other medical goods and the collection of funds to permit assisting low- and middle-income countries in terms of vaccine availability. COVID-19 is a truly global pandemic. The pressure on governments to find solutions is obviously enormous. Actions like those by the G-7 today and by other governments, NGOs and others to address the COVID-19 challenge are along the lines of what is needed to have more equitable distribution of vaccines. As the UN and WHO keep saying, no one is safe until all are safe.

The challenges for COVAX are huge and the goal for 2021 is to get 20% of the populations part of the program vaccinated. Developed countries and others able to do so need to continue to cooperate to see that these goals for 2021 are met and that further help is available moving into 2022. A study commissioned by the ICC estimates the global costs of not moving quickly to get all people in the world vaccinated at being more than $8 trillion — a figure that dwarfs the costs to get the vaccines produced, distributed and shots given. Hopefully, the world will cooperate and do what is needed to see that all countries can recover from the current pandemic in a timely manner.

COVID-19 agricultural fall out — higher prices for many consumers and greater food insecurity

The World Bank’s President David Malpass in a February 1st posting on Voices flagged the challenges for many of the world’s poorest people flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic — higher food prices, greater hunger, more people pushed into extreme poverty. See World Bank blog,COVID crisis is fueling food price rises for world’s poorest, February 1, 2021, https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/covid-crisis-fueling-food-price-rises-worlds-poorest. The post was originally published in the Guardian. The post is copied in its entirety below (emphasis in the original webpost).

“Over the last year, COVID-19 has undone the economic, health and food security of millions, pushing as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty. While the health and economic impacts of the pandemic have been devastating, the rise in hunger has been one of its most tangible symptoms. 

Income losses have translated into less money in people’s pockets to buy food while market and supply disruptions due to movement restrictions have created local shortages and higher prices, especially for perishable food.  This reduced access to nutritious food will have negative impacts on the health and cognitive development of COVID-era children for years to come.

“Global food prices, as measured by a World Bank food price index, rose 14% last year. Phone surveys conducted periodically by the World Bank in 45 countries show significant percentages of people running out of food or reducing their consumption. With the situation increasingly dire, the international community can take three key actions in 2021 to increase food security and help prevent a larger toll on human capital.

“The first priority is enabling the free flow of food. To avoid artificial shortages and price spikes, food and other essential goods must flow as freely as possible across borders.  Early in the pandemic, when perceived shortages and panic generated threats of export bans, the international community helped keep food trade flows open. Credible and transparent information about the state of global food inventories – which were at comfortable levels pre-COVID – along with unequivocal free-trade statements from the G20, World Trade Organization, and regional cooperation bodies helped reassure traders, and led to helpful policy responses. Special rules for agriculture, food workers and transport corridors restored supply chains that had been briefly disrupted within countries.

“We need to remain vigilant and avoid backsliding into export restrictions and hardened borders that make food – and other essentials – scarce or more costly.

“The second priority is bolstering social safety nets. Short-term social safety nets offer a vital cushion for families hit by the health and economic crises. In Ethiopia, for example, households that experienced problems in satisfying their food needs initially increased by 11.7 percentage points during the pandemic, but participants in our long-running Productive Safety Net program were shielded from most of the negative effects.

“The world has mounted an unprecedented social protection response to COVID-19. Cash transfers are now reaching 1.1 billion people, and innovative delivery mechanisms are rapidly identifying and reaching new groups, such as informal urban workers. But ‘large scale’ is not synonymous with ‘adequate’. In a review of COVID-19 social response programs, cash transfer programs were found to be:

“–Short-term in their duration – lasting just over three months on average

“–Small in value – an average of $6 (£4.30) per capita in low-income countries

“–Limited in scope – with many in need remaining uncovered

“The pandemic has reinforced the vital imperative of increasing the world’s investments in social protection systems. Additional measures to expedite cash transfers, particularly via digital means, would also play an important role in reducing malnutrition.

“The third priority is enhancing prevention and preparedness. The world’s food systems endured numerous shocks in 2020, from economic impacts on producers and consumers to desert locust swarms and erratic weather.  All indicators suggest that this may be the new normal. The ecosystems we rely on for water, air and food supply are under threat. Zoonotic diseases are on the rise owing to growing demographic and economic pressures on land, animals and wildlife.

“A warming planet is contributing to costlier and more frequent extreme weather events. And as people pack into low-quality housing in urban slums or vulnerable coastal areas, more are living in the path of disease and climate disaster.

“Development gains can be wiped out in the blink of an eye. Our experience with hurricanes or seismic events shows that it is more effective to invest in prevention, before a catastrophe strikes. That’s why countries need adaptive social protection programs – programs that are connected to food security early warning systems and can be scaled up in anticipation of shocks.

“The time is long overdue to shift to practices that safeguard and increase food and nutrition security in ways that will endure. The to-do list is long and urgent. We need sustained financing for approaches that prioritize human, animal and planetary health; restore landscapes and diversify crops to improve nutrition; reduce food loss and waste; strengthen agricultural value chains to create jobs and recover lost incomes; and deploy effective climate-smart agriculture techniques on a much greater scale.

“The World Bank Group and partners are ready to help countries reform their agriculture and food policies and redeploy public finance to foster a green, inclusive, and resilient recovery.

Focusing on food security would address a basic injustice: almost one in 10 people live in chronic hunger in an age of food waste and plenty.  This focus would also strengthen our collective ability to weather the next storm, flood, drought, or pandemic – with safe and nutritious food for all.”

Food insecurity is an issue for all countries although most pressing for the poorest countries

The challenges noted by the World Bank President also face most other countries. For example, in the United States, there has been a massive increase in the number of people getting food from food banks and estimates are that one in seven Americans needs food assistance. Feeding America, The Impact of Coronavirus on Food Insecurity, October 2020, https://www.feedingamerica.org/research/coronavirus-hunger-research (“Combining analyses at the national, state, county, and congressional district levels, we show how the number of people who are food insecure in 2020 could rise to more than 50 million, including 17 million children.”) The challenges for schools not being able to have in school education has complicated the challenge in the United States as millions of children receive food from their schools but need alternative sources when schools are not able to provide in school classes. See, e.g., Brookings Institution, Hungry at Thanksgiving: A Fall 2020 update on food insecurity in the U.S., November 23, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/11/23/hungry-at-thanksgiving-a-fall-2020-update-on-food-insecurity-in-the-u-s/ (reviews the increase in food insecurity and the various safety net programs in the U.S. attempting to address).

World Trade Organization involvement in addressing the problem

The World Trade Organization is directly involved in addressing the first priority identified by World Bank President Malpass — enabling the free flow of food. However, the WTO also monitors government support efforts and has the ability to be tackling trade and environment issues which could affect the third priority by reducing climate change.

WTO Members under WTO rules can impose export restraints under certain circumstances and in the first half of 2020, a number of members imposed export restraints on particular agricultural products and many imposed export restraints on certain medical goods. At the same time, the lockdown of countries had significant effects on the movement of goods and people. Many WTO Members have urged limiting such restraints and the WTO Secretariat has monitored both restraints imposed, when such restraints have been lifted (if they have), and trade liberalization efforts to speed the movement of important goods. See, e.g., WTO, COVID-19 and world trade, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/covid19_e.htm; WTO, COVID-19 AND AGRICULTURE: A STORY OF RESILIENCE, INFORMATION NOTE, 26 August 2020, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/agric_report_e.pdf; WTO, COVID-19: Measures affecting trade in goods, updated as of 1 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/trade_related_goods_measure_e.htm. The August paper on COVIDE-19 and Agriculture is embedded below.

agric_report_e

There have been a number of proposals by certain WTO Members to forego export restraints on agricultural products during the pandemic. None have been acted upon by the membership as a whole, but the communications often reflect commitments of certain Members to keep agricultural markets open during the pandemic. See, e.g., RESPONDING TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC WITH OPEN AND PREDICTABLE TRADE IN AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD PRODUCTS, STATEMENT FROM: AUSTRALIA; BRAZIL; CANADA; CHILE; COLOMBIA; COSTA RICA; ECUADOR; EUROPEAN UNION; GEORGIA; HONG KONG, CHINA; JAPAN; REPUBLIC OF KOREA; MALAWI; MALAYSIA; MEXICO; NEW ZEALAND; NICARAGUA; PARAGUAY; PERU; QATAR; KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA; SINGAPORE; SWITZERLAND; THE SEPARATE CUSTOMS TERRITORY OF TAIWAN, PENGHU, KINMEN AND MATSU; UKRAINE; UNITED ARAB EMIRATES; UNITED KINGDOM; UNITED STATES; AND URUGUAY, WT/GC/208/Rev.2, G/AG/30/Rev.2, 29 May 2020. The document is embedded below.

208R2-3

More can and should be done, including a WTO-wide agreement to forego agricultural export restraints during the current pandemic or future pandemics. However, there are strong objections to any such limits from a number of WTO Members including large and important countries like China, India and South Africa.

Indeed, efforts to get agreement at the December 2020 General Council meeting that countries would not block agricultural exports to the UN’s World Food Programme for humanitarian purposes was blocked by a number of countries. While 79 WTO Members in January 2021 provided a joint pledge not to prevent agricultural exports to the UN World Food Programme, it is a sign of the sensitivity of food security to many countries that a very limited humanitarian proposal could not obtain the agreement of all WTO Members in a period of hightened need by many of the world’s poorest countries. See January 23, 2021, WTO and the World Food Programme – action by 79 Members after a failed December effort at the General Council, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/23/wto-and-the-world-food-programme-action-by-79-members-after-a-failed-december-effort-at-the-general-council/.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has extracted a huge cost from the world economy, has pushed tens of millions of people into extreme poverty, has cost hundreds of millions people employment (full or partial), is complicating the education of the world’s children with likely long lasting effects, has exposed potential challenges to achieving global cooperation on a range of matters including the desirability of limiting or not imposing export restraints on agricultural and medical goods.

While the focus of countries and the media in the last several months has shifted to access to vaccines and ensuring greater equitable distribution of such vaccines at affordable prices, there remains much that needs to be done to better address food insecurity during the pandemic. International organizations like the World Bank, IMF and WTO, countries, businesses and NGOs need to se that both core issues are addressed in the coming months.


Early trade action by Biden Administration — reinstating aluminum duties on imports from the United Arab Emirates

On February 1, 2021, President Biden revoked an action by the Trump Administration on aluminum products from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE’s exports of aluminum had been subject to additional duties as a result of an investigation of global imports of aluminum under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, as amended, where the Secretary of Commerce found that imports were a threat to national security and President Trump had imposed additional duties of 10%. Countries with security relationships with the United States were able to seek alternative approaches to addressing U.S. concerns.

The United States and the UAE have a security relationship of importance to the U.S. Specifically, the United States had worked with the UAE in its efforts to secure greater recognition for the state of Israel. The Abraham Accords Peace Agreement: Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization Between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel was agreed by the UAE and Israel on August 13, 2020, signed at the White House on September 15, 2020 and ratified by the two governments in mid-October 2020.

Shortly before leaving office, on January 19, 2021, President Trump through Proclamation 10139 indicated that tariffs would be lifted on imports of aluminum from the UAE with an effective date of 12:01 a.m. on February 3, 2021. In their place, quotas at “historic levels” were agreed to on aluminum exports to the U.S. from the UAE. The Trump Proclamation is found at 86 FR 6,825-31 (January 25, 2021) and is embedded below.

2021-01711

By proclamation on February 1, 2021, President Biden revoked President Trump’s Proclamation 10139. The discussion contained in President Biden’s Proclamation indicates that his Administration views Section 232 as an important tool, that the aluminum industry is critical to U.S. national security and that the tariffs that were imposed on aluminum were having the desired effect prior to the pandemic and were worth maintaining. The Biden Proclamation is reproduced below. While it is not yet published in the Federal Register, the Proclamation can be found on the White House website in the briefing room. See A Proclamation on Adjusting Imports of Aluminum Into the United States, February 1, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/02/01/a-proclamation-on-adjusting-imports-of-aluminum-into-the-united-states/.

BRIEFING ROOM

A Proclamation on Adjusting Imports of Aluminum Into the United States

FEBRUARY 01, 2021 • PRESIDENTIAL ACTIONS

ADJUSTING IMPORTS OF ALUMINUM INTO THE UNITED STATES

BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

A PROCLAMATION

  1. Proclamation 10139 of January 19, 2021 (Adjusting Imports of Aluminum Into the United States), amended Proclamation 9704 (Adjusting Imports of Aluminum Into the United States), as amended, with respect to tariffs on certain imports of aluminum articles proclaimed under section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, as amended (19 U.S.C. 1862). Proclamation 10139 provides that those amendments will not take effect until 12:01 a.m. on February 3, 2021.
  2. I consider it is necessary and appropriate in light of our national security interests to maintain, at this time, the tariff treatment applied to aluminum article imports from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) under Proclamation 9704, as amended, as they are currently in effect as of this date. Accordingly, and as provided for in clause (6) of Proclamation 10139, I am terminating the modifications contained in that proclamation before they take effect.
  3. Proclamation 9704 applied tariffs to help ensure the economic viability of the domestic aluminum industry — an industry that the Secretary of Commerce had previously identified as essential to our critical industries and national defense. Because robust domestic aluminum production capacity is essential to meet our current and future national security needs, Proclamation 9704 aimed to revive idled aluminum facilities, open closed smelters and mills, preserve necessary skills, and maintain or increase domestic production by reducing United States reliance on foreign producers.
  4. In my view, the available evidence indicates that imports from the UAE may still displace domestic production, and thereby threaten to impair our national security. Proclamation 9704 authorized the Secretary of Commerce to grant exclusions from the aluminum tariffs based on specific national security considerations or if specific imported aluminum articles were determined not to be produced sufficiently in the United States, such that the imports would not diminish domestic production. Tellingly, there have been 33 such exclusion requests for aluminum imported from the UAE, covering 587,007 metric tons of articles, and the Secretary of Commerce has denied 32 of those requests, covering 582,007 metric tons. This indicates the large degree of overlap between imports from the UAE and what our domestic industry is capable of producing.
  5. Since the tariff on aluminum imports was imposed, such imports substantially decreased, including a 25 percent reduction from the UAE, and domestic aluminum production increased by 22 percent through 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic began. In light of that history, I believe that maintaining the tariff is likely to be more effective in protecting our national security than the untested quota described in Proclamation 10139.
  6. Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, as amended, authorizes the President to adjust the imports of an article and its derivatives that are being imported into the United States in such quantities or under such circumstances as to threaten to impair the national security.
  7. Section 604 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended (19 U.S.C. 2483), authorizes the President to embody in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States the substance of statutes affecting import treatment, and actions thereunder, including the removal, modification, continuance, or imposition of any rate of duty or other import restriction.
    Now, Therefore, I, Joseph R. Biden Jr., President of the United States of America, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, including section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, as amended, section 301 of title 3, United States Code, and section 604 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended, do hereby proclaim that Proclamation 10139, including the Annex, is revoked.
    IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this
    first day of February, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty-one, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fifth.

JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR.

___________________________________________________________

Pending WTO disputes; UAE does not have a pending dispute with the U.S.

While China, India, the European Union, Norway, the Russian Federation, Switzerland and Turkey all have ongoing panel proceedings at the WTO challenging the U.S. imposition of duties on steel and aluminum pursuant to Section 232 investigations, the UAE is not a country that has filed a request for consultations on the additional duties on aluminum on its exports to the United States. See WT/DSB 544 (China), WT/DSB547 (India), WT/DSB/548 (European Union), WT/DSB/552 (Norway), WT/DS554 (Russian Federation), WT/DS556 (Switzerland) and WT/DS564 (Turkey); challenges by Canada and Mexico were withdrawn after agreement with the United States (WT/DS550 (Canada) and WT/DS551 (Mexico). The panel reports were to go to parties in the fall of 2020 and released to the public once translations into the official languages was accomplished. But no report has been released to date. With the impasse on the Appellate Body, it is unclear if the Biden Administration will opt to file appeals should the panel reports not recognize the U.S. national security concerns. Thus, absent a decision by the Biden team, should it lose the WTO cases and not appeal, to eliminate the additional duties on imports from all countries, the UAE’s exports will continue to face the additional 10% duties for the foreseeable future.

Broader interest in Biden Administration approach to Section 232

A recent article in Politico reviews contact by the EU with the Biden team last week seeking an immediate end to tariffs on imports from the EU of both steel and aluminum with a corresponding withdrawal of EU retaliatory tariffs if accomplished. As noted in the Politico article, the tariffs are supported by steel producers, unions (e.g., the USW has many workers in both the steel and aluminum industries) and the primary aluminum producers. Politico, Biden, in first trade move, reimposes a Trump tariff, February 1, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/02/01/biden-aluminum-tariff-uae-464794.

Conclusion

It is unlikely that the U.S. will agree to withdraw the 232 duties at the present time. The Biden team doesn’t have its trade people in place; there are pending WTO disputes; the underlying problems of global excess capacity in both steel and aluminum continue on with no resolution in sight. The main driver of the excess capacity has been China (though others have contributed). There are no WTO rules that permit effective addressing of such problems, and China has largely ignored calls by its trading partners to address the problem in a meaningful manner.

Still the reversal of President Trump’s January 19, 2021 Proclamation is an interesting first step in the trade arena by the Biden Administration to emphasize that restoring economic health to the U.S. economy is an important component of his starting game plan (along with meaningfully addressing the pandemic). Trade issues will likely be seen through that prism even as the U.S. works within multilateral organizations and with allies on a host of issues of common interest and concern.

The WTO Informal Ministerial of January 29, 2021 — hope for progress at the WTO in 2021

Switzerland typically hosts an informal ministerial meeting of WTO trade ministers on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s January Davos event. This year both were handled remotely.

The informal ministerial was summarized in ten points by the Swiss Confederation President Guy Parmelin at the end of the event. President Parmelin’s statement is available here, https://www.newsd.admin.ch/newsd/message/attachments/65098.pdf, and is copied below.

Virtual Informal WTO Ministerial Gathering, 29 January 2021

Personal Concluding Remarks by the Chair, President of the Swiss Confederation and Head of the Federal Department for Economic Affairs, Education and Research, Guy Parmelin, Switzerland

“29 Ministers and high officials representing a broad spectrum of the WTO membership attended this year’s Informal World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Gathering in virtual format. In concluding and with warm thanks to all participants for their contributions, I would like to summarise the main points from our discussions as follows:

“• Ministers stressed the urgency of the swift appointment of a new WTO Director-General as well as the confirmation of the date and venue of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12).

“• Ministers reiterated their determination to maintain a credible multilateral trading system and to restore a climate of mutual trust.

“• Ministers expressed their concerns about the enormous social and economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis. They highlighted the relevance of trade and the role of the WTO in containing the pandemic and promoting recovery. Many Ministers underlined the importance of ensuring the development of as well as an equitable and affordable access to medical goods, including vaccines. They addressed ways and means to achieve these goals, including the implementation of measures facilitating trade, the role of intellectual property and transparency.

“• Ministers regretted that the negotiations on fisheries subsidies could not be completed in accordance with the end-2020 deadline foreseen in SDG 14.6. In light of the significance of this process for the sustainability of global fisheries, Ministers concurred that a comprehensive and effective agreement on fisheries subsidies should be concluded as soon as possible. Ministers agreed to step up efforts with a view to finding mutually acceptable solutions consistent with all the elements of the negotiating mandate.

“• Ministers highlighted the importance of restoring a fully functional WTO dispute settlement system, which is a key pillar of the rules-based multilateral trading system.

“• Many participants argued for further progress in agricultural trade policy reform at MC12 and asked for an outcome on domestic support and other issues. The issues of public stockholding and the special safeguard mechanism were highlighted by several Ministers.

“• Many Ministers called for tangible outcomes, by MC12, on the Joint Statement Initiatives. Inter alia finalizing the process on Services Domestic Regulation and making substantial progress on E-commerce and Investment Facilitation as well as on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment.

“• The need to reform the WTO was widely acknowledged. A number of Ministers insisted on advancing diverse issues related to the special and differential treatment of developing and least developed countries. Some participants proposed to adjust WTO rules to present-day economic and competitive conditions.

“• Several Ministers supported new initiatives launched in response to global challenges such as the structured discussions on Trade and Environmental Sustainability.

“• Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to engage in the preparations for MC12 in order to advance key issues.”


The participants at this year’s informal ministerial included officials from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chad (coordinator for LDC Group), Chile, China, Egypt, European Union, India, Indonesia, Jamaica (Coordinator ACP Group), Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea, Mauritius (Coordinator African Group), Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland (Chair), Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States and three officials with WTO roles — H.E. Mr. David Walker (New Zealand), WTO General Council Chair; H.E. Mr. Santiago Wills (Colombia), WTO Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules, H.E. Mr. Alan Wolff, WTO Deputy Director-General. The full list with titles is embedded below.

List-of-participants-at-virtual-informal-ministerial-1-29-2021-65099

The good news for the informal ministerial was the position taken by the United States representative who reportedly indicated that the United States was actively reviewing the issue of the next Director-General and was intent on actively working on WTO reform. See, e.g., Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Biden administration strikes ‘constructive’ tone in first word on WTO approach, January 29, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/biden-administration-strikes-%E2%80%98constructive%E2%80%99-tone-first-word-wto-approach; Politico, Biden administration joins call for ‘swift appointment’ of new WTO head, January 29, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/29/biden-world-trade-organization-463820. Under the Trump Administration, the United States had blocked the formation of consensus around Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala based on the U.S. view that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala did not have a sufficient trade background. See, e.g., January 26, 2021, Letter from variety of former U.S. officials to President Biden urges U.S. support for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as next WTO Director General, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/26/letter-from-variety-of-former-u-s-officials-to-president-biden-urges-u-s-support-for-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iweala-as-next-wto-director-general/. Hopefully, the current review of the issue by the Biden Administration, even ahead of President Biden’s trade team being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will result in the U.S. joining the support for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, permitting the WTO to approve a next Director-General.

It was also reported that the United States, consistent with the Biden Administration’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, expressed interest in promoting recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and concluding an ambitious fisheries subsidies agreement. See Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Biden administration strikes ‘constructive’ tone in first word on WTO approach, January 29, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/biden-administration-strikes-%E2%80%98constructive%E2%80%99-tone-first-word-wto-approach. Fisheries subsidies negotiations have been going on for some twenty years, and many Members have remained more concerned with keeping their subsidies in place than agreeing to disciplines that would create conditions for sustainable fishing going forward. The Interest in the Biden Administration in working within the WTO on joint steps to promote recovery from the pandemic is different from the approach pursued by the Trump Administration which didn’t want to look at actions possible within the WTO (other than limits on export restraints on agricultural goods) while the world was dealing with the pandemic. The U.S. statement should mean more interest in exploring issues like those raised by the Ottawa Group. See November 27, 2020, The Ottawa Group’s November 23 communication and draft elements of a trade and health initiative, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/27/the-ottawa-groups-november-23-communication-and-draft-elements-of-a-trade-and-health-initiative/.

Other issues flagged in the Swiss President’s concluding remarks are issues of particular interest to some or many countries but not topics of clear agreement. For example, while it is likely that the United States will look for ways to resolve its concerns about longstanding problems in the WTO’s dispute settlement system, particularly around the Appellate Body, it is unlikely that there will be a swift resolution of the U.S. concerns, and hence there will likely be a continued impasse for at least much of 2021 on the return of a functioning two-stage dispute settlement system.

Similarly on domestic support in agriculture and other agriculture issues flagged, certain WTO Members have not supported further liberalization in agriculture while pushing for limits on domestic subsidies and rollback of liberalization commitments undertaken in the Uruguay Round. It is unlikely that there will be forward movement on these issues without greater balance in terms of tariff reductions on major agricultural products. Moreover, as noted in a recent post, other major distortions in agriculture that are not presently identified as domestic subsidies include widespread use of child and forced labor on many agricultural products. See January 25, 2021, Child labor and forced labor in cotton production — is there a current WTO mandate to identify and quantify the distortive effects?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/25/child-labor-and-forced-labor-in-cotton-production-is-there-a-current-wto-mandate-to-identify-and-quantify-the-distortive-effects/; January 24, 2021, Forced labor and child labor – a continued major distortion in international trade for some products, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/24/forced-labor-and-child-labor-a-continued-major-distortion-in-international-trade-for-some-products/. Such practices should be quantified and the level of potential distortion identified so WTO Members can decide how to address them in ongoing agriculture negotiations.

Progress is being made on Joint Statement Initiatives including e-commerce, services domestic regulation, investment facilitation and women’s empowerment. An open issue for these and topics in the sphere of trade and the environment (e.g., environmental goods agreement) is whether benefits provided by participants will be made available on an MFN basis or limited to participants, with the option of other Members to join in the future. See January 18, 2021, Revisiting the need for MFN treatment for sectoral agreements among the willing, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/18/revisiting-the-need-for-mfn-treatment-for-sectoral-agreements-among-the-willing/. For many Members liberalization could be speeded up if benefits in sectoral agreements go to those participating only while leaving the door open for other Members to join later when they see the value for them.

And on the important topic of WTO reform beyond the items listed above, there is little current agreement on how to deal with industrial subsidies and other practices that lead to massive global excess capacity, or on how to address access to special and differential treatment and many other areas of importance to some or many WTO Members.

Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff provided a statement during the virtual informal ministerial urging WTO Members to make 2021 a year of accomplishments. The WTO press release can be found here. WTO News, DDG Wolff urges WTO ministers to address the pandemic and make 2021 a year of action, 29 January 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/igo_29jan21_e.htm. DDG Wolff’s statement is copied below.

“My thanks to our Swiss hosts and to President Parmelin both for his remarks today and for his very thoughtful address on the occasion of the 25th anniversary celebration of the WTO last November.

“Ministers, you can make 2021 a year of substantial accomplishments at the WTO.

“There has already been a beginning.  In the first action of the year, Members accounting for most of the world’s agricultural exports committed to refrain from imposing export restrictions on purchases made by the World Food Program.

“The anticipated appointment of a new Director-General will bring needed leadership in moving toward concrete results.  But she can succeed only with your active engagement.

“I urge you not to wait for the Twelfth Ministerial Conference, delayed by the pandemic, to move negotiations forward to positive outcomes. 

“There is no reason why the twenty-year negotiation on fisheries subsidies cannot be concluded successfully — without a sacrifice of ambition — in the next few months.  Success hinges on Members’ willingness to accept a significant level of discipline on their own subsidies.  Political decisions and your active engagement will be required to bring about success.

“I urge you to address ‘trade and health’ forcefully and immediately.  Last year, trade made a vitally important contribution in supplying needed medical supplies to deal with COVID-19.  Proposals as to what more can be done must be deliberated now.  Cooperation on trade can accelerate access to vaccines.  There can be no higher priority.

“Consider how the WTO can further contribute to the economic recovery.  Members can take steps to ensure enhanced transparency, work to eliminate unnecessary barriers and agree that new restrictions will not be imposed.  Trade finance must be restored.  The WTO convened the major international financial organizations and banks to address this need in the aftermath of the financial crisis and it can do so now again.

“’Trade and climate’ must be on the WTO agenda.  Carbon border adjustment measures will likely result in conflicts unless Members engage in joint efforts to find mutually beneficial solutions.  The heightened interest of Members in a broad range of other environmental issues such as plastics pollution and the circular economy can be reflected in new agreements.   The WTO can be more visible as a steward of the planet by reviving and concluding the Environmental Goods Agreement

“The Joint Statement Initiatives on e-commerce, investment facilitation, and services domestic regulation can bear fruit this year, building on what was achieved with respect to small businesses last year.  In addition, more progress can be made on the economic empowerment of women through international trade.  

“Concerns over income inequality have been growing.  The WTO’s rules-based system needs to be seen not only among countries but also within countries, as responsive to the needs of workers, farmers and all who wish to engage in international trade.  But international trade rules cannot substitute for domestic policy actions to make growth more inclusive.  When large numbers of people are unhappy with how the economy is working for them, trade will often receive undeserved blame.  The WTO is about fairness.  Its work will never be done in pursuit of that objective, but further progress can be made this year.

“There can be an outcome on agriculture — at least a down-payment and a defined work program going forward.

“During 2021, the WTO can likely welcome new WTO Members, as it continues to move towards universal coverage.  Comoros and Bosnia-Herzegovina may be ready, and over a dozen others are making progress.

“Last but not least, ‘WTO reform’ can become a reality, with actions taken to —

“- facilitate rule-making with wide participation,

“- achieve heightened enforcement through binding dispute settlement in a manner agreed by all, and

“- provide a strong mandate for a Secretariat to deliver all needed support to Members and to achieving the mission of the WTO. 

“We should greet this year with optimism and re-dedication.  With your strong engagement, 2021 can be a year to remember for what is achieved.

“Thank you.”

A presentation from the WTO Secretariat to Ministers needs to be positive, forward looking, aspirational and inspirational. DDG Wolff’s statement yesterday provides all of that. The first item mentioned, the joint pledge from 79 WTO Members not to restrict agricultural exports to the UN World Food Programme for humanitarian purposes is a positive for the world but follows the December failure of the WTO General Council to agree to the same by all WTO Members. See January 23, 2021, WTO and the World Food Programme – action by 79 Members after a failed December effort at the General Council, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/23/wto-and-the-world-food-programme-action-by-79-members-after-a-failed-december-effort-at-the-general-council/.

The challenge for the WTO in 2021 will be whether Members can come together in fact to achieve many of the important opportunities and needs in front of the Membership. While the history of the WTO since 1995 and the major divisions among Members at the present time would strongly suggest that 2021 will not achieve many of the things that are needed and possible, hope springs eternal.

U.S. perspective

The Trump Administration did an excellent job of identifying problems with the operation of the WTO whether from the longstanding failures of the dispute settlement system, to the existential challenges to the viability of the WTO from major Members whose economies have not converged to a full market orientation, to the out-of-date rules around special and differential treatment to all who claim developing country status regardless of economic development of individual members, to the need for greater transparency in many areas, including importantly subsidies, to the failure of the WTO to update rules to address changing technology and trade issues.

The Biden Administration has indicated its intention to work within multilateral institutions, including the WTO. Early action by the United States on the Director-General selection issue could provide positive energy to WTO Members in the coming months. There are topics where success can be made in 2021 either multilaterally or plurilaterally. But a lot of what is needed for meaningful WTO reform will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the short term. Hopefully, the Biden team will stay the course to achieve reform that both returns the WTO playing field to the level agreed at the time of concluding the Uruguay Round, finds ways to deal with the massive distortions not presently covered by WTO rules, works with others to bring the WTO into the 21st century and addresses the critical issues for global prosperity and sustainable development.

Child labor and forced labor in cotton production — is there a current WTO mandate to identify and quantify the distortive effects?

In yesterday’s post (January 24), I reviewed the continued widespread human rights issue of child labor and forced labor in the production of a wide range of products (agricultural, manufactured, mined products) in many countries around the world. Such actions raise trade concerns by distorting the costs of production of products made with such labor and hence potentially skewing trade flows towards producers “benefitting” from the use of such labor. See January 24, 2021:  Forced labor and child labor – a continued major distortion in international trade for some products, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/24/forced-labor-and-child-labor-a-continued-major-distortion-in-international-trade-for-some-products/. In the United States, imports of products made with such labor are supposed to be banned. I had concluded by arguing that the WTO should develop information that would help Members understand the quantity of products that are made with child or forced labor and permit Members to then decide what actions were needed to eliminate or offset such practices.

I received a comment on yesterday’s post from Amb. Dennis Shea, the Former Deputy United States Trade Representative and Chief of Mission on international trade issues in Geneva and the Permanent Representative of the U.S. to the WTO (2017-January 2021). Amb. Shea’s comment focused on cotton. He said, “The WTO’s Committee on Agriculture in Special Session (COA-SS) and its Cotton Subcommittee are charged with examining all trade-distorting policies affecting the cotton sector in order to discharge its mandate properly. It seems to me that the COA-SS and Cotton Subcommittee should examine recent reports of widespread forced labor in the picking of cotton in the Xinjiang Province of China. It is my understanding that Xinjiang accounts for nearly 20 percent of global cotton exports, so it’s probably not a stretch to say that forced labor practices there (horrific from a human rights standpoint) are also distorting global cotton prices.”

While cotton is but one of many products believed to be produced by child and/or forced labor, it is an important product globally. The fact that there may be an existing WTO mechanism for developing the relevant information is potentially important.

In yesterday’s post, I had referenced an upcoming WITA virtual webinar, The U.S. Moves Against Forced Labor in Xinjiang, being held this Wednesday, January 27. One of the speakers at the event is Dr. Adrian Zenz, Senior Fellow in China Studies, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, Washington, D.C. One of the papers referenced in a recent WITA note is by Dr. Zenz for the Center for Global Policy entitled “Coercive Labor in Xinjiang: Labor Transfer and the Mobilization of Ethnic Minorities to Pick Cotton” (December 2020), https://cgpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/20201214-PB-China-Zenz-1-3.pdf. The paper confirms that Xinjiang produces 20% of global cotton and nearly 84.9% of all cotton produced in China. Id. at 3. The Executive Summary of the paper states in part (page 3) —

“The evidence shows that in 2018, three Uyghur regions alone mobilized at least 570,000 persons into cotton-picking operations through the government’s coercive labor training and transfer scheme. Xinjiang’s total labor transfer of ethnic minorities into cotton picking likely exceeds that figure by several hundred thousand.

“Despite increased mechanization, cotton picking in Xinjiang continues to rely strongly on manual labor. In 2019, about 70 percent of the region’s cotton fields had to be picked by hand – especially the high-quality
long-staple cotton predominantly grown in southern Xinjiang’s Uyghur regions, where mechanized picking shares are low. State policies have greatly increased the numbers of local ethnic minority pickers, reducing
reliance on outside Han Chinese migrant laborers. The intensive two- to three-month period of cotton picking represents a strategic opportunity to boost rural incomes, and therefore plays a key role in achieving the state’s poverty alleviation targets. These targets are mainly achieved through coercive labor transfers.

“Cotton picking is grueling and typically poorly paid work. Labor transfers involve coercive mobilization
through local work teams, transfers of pickers in tightly supervised groups, and intrusive on-site surveillance by government officials and (in at least some cases) police officers. Government supervision teams monitor pickers, checking that they have a “stable” state of mind, and administer political indoctrination sessions. Some regions put Uyghur children and elderly persons into centralized care while working-age adults
are away on state-assigned cotton-picking work assignments. While not directly related to the campaign of mass internment, these labor transfers can include persons who have been released from internment camps.

“The data presented in this report provides strong evidence that the production of the majority of Xinjiang’s cotton involves a coercive, state-run program targeting ethnic minority groups.”

China is not the only country where the U.S. Department of Labor has identified production of cotton is likely done with child labor, forced labor or child labor and forced labor. See USDOL, 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, September 2020, https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ILAB/child_labor_reports/tda2019/2020_TVPRA_List_Online_Final.pdf. Indeed many of the world’s largest cotton producers are listed in the report as likely producing cotton with child labor, forced labor or both child labor and forced labor:

Child labor: Argentina, Azerbaizan, Brazil, Egypt, India, Kyrgyz Republic, Mali, Turkey, Zambia.

Forced labor: Pakistan, Uzbekistan

Child labor and forced labor: China, India (cottonseed), Turkmenistan.

In the past there has been one WTO dispute on subsidies to cotton producers in the United States. See UNITED STATES – SUBSIDIES ON UPLAND COTTON, WT/DS267 (case brought by Brazil). I have been unable to find information on the WTO webpage that indicates the question of child or forced labor as a subsidy or other form of nontariff barrier has ever been examined at the WTO whether on cotton or more broadly.

For the last seventeen years, there has been concern about distortions to the cotton trade and the harm to countries for which cotton is a major export product. The breakout of cotton occurred at the request of the so-called Cotton Four — Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali. See Cotton, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/agric_e/cotton_e.htm.

“Cotton is discussed at the WTO on two tracks: 1) the trade reforms needed to address subsidies and high trade barriers for cotton, and 2) the assistance provided to the cotton sector in developing countries.

“The trade aspects of cotton are handled by the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session including through dedicated discussions on trade in cotton. The development assistance aspects of cotton are discussed in the meetings of the ‘Director-General’s Consultative Framework Mechanism on Cotton’.

“These various tracks of discussion have been developed over the years as a response to a series of proposals to address the sector tabled by four African countries — Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali — known as the Cotton Four or C4.”

While WTO Members are supposed to be reporting information on various categories of data (including domestic support) on cotton and on non-tariff barriers affecting trade in cotton, the latest WTO Secretariat compilation of information does not indicate that Members were asked about or provided information on the benefits to domestic cotton production from child labor and/or forced labor. See COTTON — BACKGROUND PAPER BY THE SECRETARIAT, TN/AG/GEN/34/Rev.13, TN/AG/SCC/GEN/13/Rev.13, 2 November 2020 (and Add.1 and Add.2); COTTON — MINISTERIAL DECISION OF 7 DECEMBER 2013, WT/MIN(13)/41, WT/L/916, 11 December 2013 (“3. In this context, we therefore undertake to enhance transparency and monitoring in relation to the trade-related aspects of cotton. To this end, we agree to hold a dedicated discussion on a biannual basis in the context of the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session to examine relevant trade-related developments across the three pillars of Market Access, Domestic Support and Export Competition in relation to cotton. 4. The dedicated discussions shall be undertaken on the basis of factual information and data compiled by the WTO Secretariat from Members’ notifications, complemented, as appropriate, by relevant information provided by Members to the WTO Secretariat. 5. The dedicated discussions shall in particular consider all forms of export subsidies for cotton and all export measures with equivalent effect, domestic support for cotton and tariff measures and non-tariff measures applied to cotton exports from LDCs in markets of interest to them.”); COTTON — MINISTERIAL DECISION OF 19 DECEMBER 2015, WT/MIN(15)/46, WT/L/981, 21 December 2015. The background paper (without addenda) is embedded below.

TNAGGEN34R13

Thus, there is an existing forum for developing information on all distortions to the cotton market. Yet, to date, the WTO subcommittee on Cotton is not examining the widespread issue of child labor and forced labor as part of its information gathering. This is unfortunate but could be addressed if there is a will to in fact flag all distortions.

There can be arguments pro and con on whether all child labor and forced labor constitutes actionable subsidies under the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures. While I believe that the practices identified as being used in Xinjiang constitute actionable subsidies (government action which provides inputs (labor) at rates lower than market), there can be no doubt that the failure of governments to eliminate child labor and forced labor distorts competition between those obtaining products through the use of such labor and others who are not using such labor. The use of child labor and forced labor are universally condemned and supposed to be eliminated by 2025 (child labor) or 2030 (forced labor) pursuant to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The WTO can and should develop the factual basis for an understanding of the trade distortions flowing from child labor and forced labor. The existence of a current program at the WTO on cotton to develop information on all forms of subsidies and all forms of non-tariff barriers is a good place to start the exercise. My thanks to Amb. Shea for flagging the potential existing vehicles within the WTO to address at least cotton.

Forced labor and child labor — a continued major distortion in international trade for some products

In recent years, the United States has paid more attention to the trade distortions flowing from forced labor and child labor in other countries, particularly in China. While there has been significant progress in the last twenty years in reducing forced labor and child labor globally according to the International Labor Organization (“ILO”), the COVID-19 pandemic has seen some retrenchment and efforts by China to address minorities in country have created an international backlash and concern.

The ILO webpage on forced labor reflects the global nature of the problem. The webpage states in part,

“Although forced labour is universally condemned, ILO estimates show that 24.9 million people around the world are still subjected toit. Of the total number of victims of forced labour, 20.8 million (83 per cent) are exploited in the private economy, by individuals or enterprises, and the remaining 4.1 million (17 per cent) are in State-imposed forms of forced labour. Among those exploited by private individuals or enterprises, 8 million (29 per cent) are victims of forced sexual exploitation and 12 million (64 per cent) of forced labour exploitation. Forced labour in the private economy generates some US$ 150 billion in illegal profits every year: two thirds of the estimated total (or US$ 99 billion) comes from commercial sexual exploitation, while another US$ 51 billion is a result from forced economic exploitation in domestic work, agriculture and other economic activities (Note 1).

“Vestiges of slavery are still found in some parts of Africa, while forced labour in the form of coercive recruitment is present in many countries of Latin America, in certain areas of the Caribbean and in other parts of the world. In numerous countries, domestic workers are trapped in situations of forced labour, and in many cases they are restrained from leaving the employers’ home through threats or violence. Bonded labour persists in South Asia, where millions of men, women and children are tied to their work through a vicious circle of debt. In Europe and North America, a considerable number of women and children are victims of traffickers, who sell them to networks of forced prostitution or clandestine sweat-shops. Finally, forced labour is still used as a punishment for expressing political views.

“For many governments around the world, the elimination of forced labour remains an important challenge in the 21st century. Not only is forced labour a serious violation of a fundamental human right, it is a leading cause of poverty and a hindrance to economic development. ILO standards on forced labour, associated with well-targeted technical assistance, are the main tools at the international level to combat this scourge.”

ILO, International Labour Standards on Forced labour, https://www.ilo.org/global/standards/subjects-covered-by-international-labour-standards/forced-labour/lang–en/index.htm. See also ILO and Walk Free, 2017, Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, Forced Labor and Forced Marriage, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pdf.

Child labor involves more people – an estimated 152 million of which 73 million are involved in hazardous work. See ILO, International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour and Forced Labour (IPEC+), https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/how-the-ilo-works/flagships/ipec-plus/lang–en/index.htm.

While the incidence of forced labor and child labor is declining, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated trends as these populations are most vulnerable. See, e.g., ILO, The International Labour Organization
and the US Department of Labor partnership to eliminate child labour and forced labour, 2019, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_norm/@ipec/documents/publication/wcms_710971.pdf (“The ILO’s most recent global estimates of child labour indicate, however, that significant progress is
being made. From 2000 to 2016, there was a net reduction of 94 million children in child labour and
the number of children in hazardous work was halved. In parallel, the ILO Worst Forms of Child
Labour Convention (No. 182) was ratified by 186 countries, reaching almost universal ratification.
The challenges ahead, however, remain formidable: in 2016, 152 million girls and boys were in child
labour and 25 million men, women and children were trapped in forced labour.”); ILO, COVID-19 impact on
child labour and forced labour: The response of the IPEC+ Flagship Programme, 2020, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—ipec/documents/publication/wcms_745287.pdf (“COVID-19 has plunged the world into a crisis of unprecedented scope and scale. Undoubtedly, restoring global health remains the first priority, but the strict measures required are resulting in massive economic and social shocks. As lockdown, quarantine, physical distancing and other isolation measures to suppress transmission continue, the global economy has plunged into a recession. The harmful effects of this pandemic will not be distributed equally. They are expected to be most damaging in the poorest countries and in the poorest neighbourhoods, and for those in already disadvantaged or vulnerable situations, such as
children in child labour and victims of forced labour and human trafficking, particularly women and girls.
These vulnerable groups are more affected by income shocks due to the lack of access to social protection,
including health insurance and unemployment benefits. * * * Experience from previous crisis situations, such as the 2014 Ebola epidemic, has shown that these factors play a particularly strong role in exacerbating the risk to child labour and forced labour.”).

In China, the government’s efforts to “reeducate” minority populations (e.g., Uyghurs from the western region of Xinjiang) has led to allegations of forced labor on a range of products and actions by the United States to restrict certain imports from China from the region. The Washington International Trade Association is holding a virtual webinar on January 27 looking at the challenges in China and the forced labor problem of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the resulting U.S. ban on cotton and tomato products. See WITA, WITA’s Friday Focus on Trade, Vol. 206, January 22, 2021 (containing various articles on the China forced labor issue and referencing the webinar on January 27, WITA Webinar: The U.S. Moves Against Forced Labor in Xinjiang).

The U.S. Department of Labor in September released its 2020 list of products believed to be produced in foreign countries with forced labor or with child labor. See USDOL, 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, September 2020, https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ILAB/child_labor_reports/tda2019/2020_TVPRA_List_Online_Final.pdf. The report provides the following statement of purpose:

“The U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL or the Department) has produced this ninth edition of the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor in accordance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), as amended. The TVPRA requires USDOL’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB or the Bureau) to “develop and make available to the public a list of goods from countries that
[ILAB] has reason to believe are produced by forced labor or child labor in violation of international standards” (TVPRA List or the List; 22 U.S.C. § 7112(b)(2)(C)). It also requires submission of the TVPRA List to the United States Congress not later than December 1, 2014, and every 2 years thereafter (22 U.S.C. § 7112(b)(3)).

“The Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2018 expanded ILAB’s mandate to require the TVPRA List to include, ‘to the extent practicable, goods that are produced with inputs that are produced with forced labor or child labor’” (22 U.S.C. 7112(b)(2)(C)).

“The TVPRA directs ILAB ‘to work with persons who are involved in the production of goods on the list … to create a standard set of practices that will reduce the likelihood that such persons will produce goods using [child labor or forced labor],’ and ‘to consult with other departments and agencies of the United States Government to reduce forced and child labor internationally and ensure that products made by forced labor and child labor in violation of international standards are not imported into the United States’ (22 U.S.C. § 7112(b)(2)(D)–(E)).” (pages 1 and 3).

This year’s publication lists 77 countries that have one or more products believed to be produced with child labor, with forced labor or with both child and forced labor. Fourteen countries are listed as having products believed to be produced with forced labor. Thirty-six countries are listed as believed to produce products with child and forced labor. Sixty-four countries produce some products with child labor. The 77 countries are listed below along with whether products are believed produced with child labor, forced labor, or child labor & forced labor.

Afghanistan — child larbor; child labor & forced labor

Angola — child labor & forced labor

Argentina — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Azerbaijan — child labor

Bangladesh – child labor; child labor & forced labor

Belize — child labor

Benin — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Bolivia — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Brazil — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Burkina Faso — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Burma — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Cambodia — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Cameroon — child labor

Central African Republic — child labor

Chad — child labor

China — forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Colombia — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Costa Rica — child labor

Cote d’Ivoire — child labor & forced labor

Democratic Republic of the Congo — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Dominican Republic — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Ecuador — child labor

Egypt — child labor

El Salvador — child labor

Eswatini — child labor

Ethiopia — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Ghana — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Guatemala — child labor

Guinea — child labor

Honduras — child labor

India — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Indonesia — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Iran — child labor

Kazakhstan — child labor & forced labor

Kenya — child labor

Kyrgyz Republic — child labor

Lebanon — child labor

Lesotho — child labor

Liberia — child labor

Madagascar — child labor

Malawi — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Malaysia — forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Mali — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Mauritania — child labor

Mexico — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Mongolia — child labor

Mozambique — child labor

Nepal — child labor & forced labor

Nicaragua — child labor

Niger — child labor; forced labor

Nigeria — child labor; child labor & forced labor

North Korea — forced labor

Pakistan — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Panama — child labor

Paraguay — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Peru — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Philippines — child labor

Russia — forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Rwanda — child labor

Senegal — child labor

Sierra Leone –child labor; child labor & forced labor

South Sudan — child labor & forced labor

Sudan — child labor

Suriname — child labor

Taiwan — forced labor

Tajikistan — child labor & forced labor

Tanzania — child labor

Thailand — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Turkey — child labor

Turkmenistan — child labor & forced labor

Uganda — child labor

Ukraine — child labor

Uzbekistan — forced labor

Venezuela — forced labor

Vietnam — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Yemen — child labor

Zambia — child labor

Zimbabwe — child labor

While the number of products obviously vary by country and category, the report categorized agriculture as having 68 child labor listings and 29 forced labor listings. This compares to manufacturing with 39 child labor and 20 forced labor listings; mining showed 32 child labor and 13 forced labor listings and pornography showed one each.

Looking at specific products for individual countries provides the most information.

As an example, China is shown as having the following products believed to be produced with forced labor — Artificial Flowers, Christmas Decorations, Coal, Fish, Footwear, Garments, Gloves, Hair Products, Nails, Thread/Yarn, and Tomato Products. China is also shown as having the following products believed to be produced with child labor and forced labor — Bricks, Cotton, Electronics, Fireworks, Textiles, and Toys. As a USDOL separate post notes, gloves, hair products, textiles, thread/yarn and tomato products were added in 2020 because of research on the forced labor situation in Xinjiang. See USDOL, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, Against Their Will: The Situation in Xinjiang, Forced Labor in Xinjiang, 2020, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/against-their-will-the-situation-in-xinjiang. The document is embedded below.

Against-Their-Will_-The-Situation-in-Xinjiang-_-U.S.-Department-of-Labor

Looking at India, products believed to be produced with child labor include the following — Bidis (hand-rolled
cigarettes), Brassware, Cotton, Fireworks, Footwear, Gems, Glass Bangles, Incense (agarbatti), Leather Goods/
Accessories, Locks, Matches, Mica, Silk Fabric, Silk Thread, Soccer Balls, Sugarcane, Thread/Yarn. Products believed produced with child labor & forced labor include the following — Bricks, Carpets, Cottonseed (hybrid), Embellished Textiles, Garments, Rice, Sandstone, Stones.

While the USDOL reports don’t estimate the portion of exports from any country of individual products that are produced with child and/or forced labor, the trade consequences can be significant as such labor is artificially valued creating distortions in competitiveness and resulting trade flows. For example, the list of products for China are either important export products for China or important inputs into exported products. The same would true for India and for many other of the 77 countries on the list.

Conclusion

The U.S. has in place statutory provisions which permit the exclusion from entry into the United states of products produced with forced labor. The Trump Administration did a somewhat better job enforcing U.S. law on imports of products produced with child or forced labor. Much more can be done and should be done domestically.

Similarly, the ILO is working to eliminate forced labor and child labor consistent with UN Sustainable Development Goals. “The objective of the IPEC+ Global Flagship Programme – in line with Target 8.7 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, adopted by the United Nations in 2015 – is to provide ILO leadership in global efforts to eradicate all forms of child labour by 2025 and all forms of contemporary slavery and human trafficking by 2030. It also aims to ensure that all people are protected from – and can protect themselves against – these gross human rights violations.” ILO, IPEC+ Global Flagship Programme Implementation, Towards a world free from child labour and forced labour, page 4, 2020, https://respect.international/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/wcms_633435.pdf.

The WTO could play a role in the fight against forced labor and child labor. Such labor practices distort global trade flows in addition to the challenges created for countries engaged in such practices in terms of poverty and human rights abuses. The WTO could gather information from Members on the volume of production and exports of products produced with child and forced labor both as finished products and as inputs into other products. Such an exercise would facilitate an understanding of the extent of global trade represented by such products and help focus attention on trade actions that could be taken to help Members eliminate such harmful practices. While it is unlikely that Members will agree to such a data gathering undertaking, one is surely needed and would add transparency to a source of an important global issue with trade as well as non-trade dimensions.

WTO and the World Food Programme — action by 79 Members after a failed December effort at the General Council

The WTO issued a press release on Jnauary 21, 2021 entitled “Group of members issue joint pledge on humanitarian food purchases”. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/agri_21jan21_e.htm. As the press release notes,

“A group of nearly 80 WTO members issued a joint statement on 21 January pledging not to impose export restrictions on foodstuffs purchased by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) for humanitarian aid.

“’We recognize the critical humanitarian support provided by the World Food Programme, made more urgent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises,’ the group said in their statement, available here. ‘We therefore commit to not impose export prohibitions or restrictions on foodstuffs purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme.’

“Discussions regarding export restrictions on food purchases by the WFP have been taking place in the WTO’s Committee on Agriculture in Special Session as well as the General Council.

“The WFP is the United Nations agency charged with delivering food assistance in emergencies and combatting hunger.”

The submission by the 79 WTO Members is embedded below (WT/L/1109).

1109-1

While the pledge by the 79 WTO Members is a significant event, the fact that the full WTO membership was not willing at the December 2020 General Council meeting to commit to such action is problematic and a reflection of the inability of WTO Members to come together on a broad array of issues. This has reduced the relevance of the WTO as a negotiating forum and prevented the updating of multilateral rules. It has led to a proliferation of free trade agreements and actions outside of the WTO. Considering the role that the World Food Programme plays and the list of beneficiaries, it is also quite extraordinary that there wasn’t an agreed General Council Decision adopted in December.

The UN World Food Programme

The UN’s World Food Programme (“WFP”) has for fifty years supplied food to those in need around the world. Consider the overview from the WFP’s webpage, https://www.wfp.org/overview (emphasis in original).

“The World Food Programme (WFP) is the leading humanitarian organization saving lives and changing lives, delivering food assistance in emergencies and working with communities to improve nutrition and build resilience

“As the international community has committed to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition by 2030one in nine people worldwide still do not have enough to eat. Food and food-related assistance lie at the heart of the struggle to break the cycle of hunger and poverty. 

“For its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict, WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020

“In 2019, WFP assisted 97 million people – the largest number since 2012 –  in 88 countries. 

“On any given day, WFP has 5,600 trucks, 30 ships and nearly 100 planes on the move, delivering food and other assistance to those in most need. Every year, we distribute more than 15 billion rations at an estimated average cost per ration of US$ 0.61. These numbers lie at the roots of WFP’s unparalleled reputation as an emergency responder, one that gets the job done quickly at scale in the most difficult environments.

“WFP’s efforts focus on emergency assistancerelief and rehabilitationdevelopment aid and special operationsTwo-thirds of our work is in conflict-affected countries where people are three times more likely to be undernourished than those living in countries without conflict. 

“In emergencies, WFP is often first on the scene, providing food assistance to the victims of war, civil conflict, drought, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, crop failures and natural disasters. When the emergency subsides, WFP helps communities rebuild shattered lives and livelihoods. We also work to strengthen the resilience of people and communities affected by protracted crises by applying a development lens in our humanitarian response.

“WFP development projects focus on nutrition, especially for mothers and children, addressing malnutrition from the earliest stages through programmes targeting the first 1,000 days from conception to a child’s second birthday, and later through school meals.

“WFP is the largest humanitarian organisation implementing school feeding programmes worldwide and has been doing so for over 50 years. In 2019, WFP provided school meals to more than 17.3 million children in 50 countries, often in the hardest-to-reach areas.

“In 2019, WFP provided 4,2 million metric tons of food and US$2.1 billion of cash and vouchers. By buying food as close as possible to where it is needed, we can save time and money on transport costs, and help sustain local economies. Increasingly, WFP meets people’s food needs through cash-based transfers that allow the people we serve to choose and shop for their own food locally.

“WFP also provides services to the entire humanitarian community, including passenger air transportation through the UN Humanitarian Air Service, which flies to more than 280 locations worldwide.

Funded entirely by voluntary donations, WFP raised a record-breaking US$8 billion in 2019. WFP has 20,000 staff worldwide of whom over 90 percent are based in the countries where the agency provides assistance.

“WFP is governed by a 36-member Executive Board. It works closely with its two Rome-based sister organizations, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. WFP partners with more than 1,000 national and international NGOs to provide food assistance and tackle the underlying causes of hunger.”

The countries in which WFP provides assistance are shown in the list from the WFP webpage, https://www.wfp.org/countries, and include many important trading countries like China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and many more in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Central and South America. Beneficiary countries include the following:

Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Armenia, Bangladesh, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, China, Colombia, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Peru, Philippines, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, Tanzania, The Caribbean, The Pacific, Timor-Leste, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

The December 2020 General Council meeting and proposed General Council Decision

During the December 2020 General Council meeting, there was an effort to adopt a General Council Decision entitled “PROPOSAL ON AGRICULTURE EXPORT PROHIBITIONS OR RESTRICTIONS RELATING TO THE WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME DRAFT GENERAL COUNCIL DECISION,” WT/GC/W/810, TN/AG/46 (4 December 2020). The draft document was modified three times to add cosponsors. WT/GC/W/810/Rev.1, Rev.2, Rev.3. Concerns were raised by India, Pakistan and some African countries (from the above list, at least India and Pakistan and most, if not all others, were beneficiaries of assistance from the the WFP). Hence there was no agreement on adopting the draft General Council Decision. See Washington Trade Daily, December 16, 2020, pages 3-4, WTO Members Talk Food Procurement, https://files.constantcontact.com/ef5f8ffe501/1b51b4fa-b0a3-4a60-9165-8c5f6d7977a4.pdf; Washington Trade Daily, December 18, 2020, pages 5-6, India Questions WFP Exemption, https://files.constantcontact.com/ef5f8ffe501/ec47c599-5c0c-47fd-80cf-a46244c5af8b.pdf.

While WTO Members always have multiple concerns and agenda items being pursued, the failure of the membership as a whole to agree to something so limited in nature and so critical for addressing global hunger was disappointing to many and reflects the seeming inability of the WTO Membership to move forward as one on the vast majority of issues before the WTO.

Conclusion

In a post earlier this month, I argued for the need for the WTO to move to liberalization by the willing without benefits for non-participants but with agreements open to all to join. See January 18, 2021, Revisiting the need for MFN treatment for sectoral agreements among the willing, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/18/revisiting-the-need-for-mfn-treatment-for-sectoral-agreements-among-the-willing/. While the MFN issue doesn’t come into play for the 79 Member pledge not to restrict exports to the WFP, the failure of the full WTO membership to agree to the draft General Council Decision is a further manifestation of the need for new approaches to promote expanded trade liberalization.

In recent speeches, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff has expressed both the lack of unity at the WTO on an issue of importance like the draft General Council Decision and also welcomed the joint pledge by the 79 WTO Members not to impose restrictions on exports to the WFP. See WTO press release, DDG Wolff outlines possible responses to calls for WTO reform, 13 January 2020, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/ddgaw_13jan21_e.htm (“Less than a month ago, a General Council meeting took place which lasted over 15 hours (over two and a half days), a recent record for length. It had only one substantive trade policy item on its agenda for decision, the consideration of which produced no agreement. The issue was whether Members would agree to forego a modicum of the policy space they now have by agreeing not to impair procurements by the Nobel-Prize-winning World Food Program. A witness to the proceeding could be forgiven for perceiving drift of the organization in its not living up to its potential. Viewed through a different lens, this was no more than sovereigns reaffirming that they could not be bound without their consent.”); WTO press release, DDG Wolff stresses need to make progress in WTO negotiations to enhance resilience of farm sector, 22 January 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/ddgaw_22jan21_e.htm (“I welcome the pledge this week of WTO members accounting for most of world agricultural exports to refrain from imposing export restrictions on foodstuffs purchased by the World Food Programme for non-commercial humanitarian purposes.”).

If there is to be a WTO capable of reform, the Members will need to reconfirm core principles and find ways to agree instead of searching for excuses to oppose. The membership seems far from sharing a common vision or accepting core principles. Too often, Members are engaged in a search for blocking progress. While all Members undoubtedly share blame for the current challenges, on the topic of blocking the minor proposal to ensure the workings of the WFP, one can look to the Members who remain non-participants in the joint pledge as the problem on this particular issue.

Specifically, the list of those WTO Members pledging not to impose export restrictions on foodstuffs to the WFP is made up of 79 WTO Members, meaning 85 Members did not join the pledge (at least not yet). Some of the major Members who are not participating in the pledge include the following — Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Africa, the Philippines, Malaysia. the Russian Federation, Hong Kong (China), Turkey. In the WTO’s World Trade Statistical Review 2020, China, Indonesia, Argentina and India are among the top 10 exporters of agricultural products and of food in 2019; China, the Russian Federation and Hong Kong (China) are among the top ten importers in 2019. WTO, World Trade Statistical Review 2020, Tables A-13 and A-14, https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/wts2020_e/wts2020_e.pdf. China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Turkey are all beneficiaries of assistance from the WFP.

While there is much that needs to be done for the restoration of the WTO’s relevance, the pledge by 79 Members suggests that liberalization by the willing may be the only road forward.

Continued surge of COVID-19 cases results in extended restrictions in many countries affecting trade and economic growth

The latest data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) show the global growth in new cases and deaths accelerating in many parts of the world with resulting extensions of restrictions on activities which harms international trade and global economic growth prospects. The control of the outbreak of new cases is being complicated by new strains in the U.K., South Africa and elsewhere that are proving to be more easily spread than initial strains and rapidly spreading around the world.

Specifically, the ECDC in a report released on January 14 covering data through the first week of 2021 (assumed to be through January 6), shows the last two weeks as generating 9,487,913 new reported cases of COVID-19 — the first time, more than nine million new cases has been found in a two week period. Data on global cases to this morning (January 15) show total global cases at 93.2 million with deaths at 2 million. These are up from the 89.8 million cases through the first week of 2021 and 1.94 million deaths. The world is likely to top 100 million COVID cases by the end of January.

The United States had its worst two weeks — 3,271,355 new cases (34.48% of global new cases) and 41,116 deaths (24.07% of last week global) — and its totals since the beginning of 2020 at 22.4 million cases and 374,442 deaths (24.97% and 19.30% of global totals) dwarf its 4.3% of global population.

Many countries in Europe are continuing to struggle with new cases and deaths and hence have extended restrictions. So, for example, the United Kingdom, has had the largest number of new cases in the last two weeks(742,619) it has ever recorded and the highest number of deaths since spring in the last two weeks (10,322). The result has been continued tightening of restrictions within the United Kingdom. See, e.g., BBC, Covid-19: UK daily deaths at record high and Scotland rules tightened, January 14, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-55652431; BBC, Covid: What are the lockdown rules across the UK?, January 13, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/explainers-52530518.

In Italy, following a second surge in the fall, restrictions helped lower the number of new cases and deaths but there have been upward trends in new cases in recent weeks with potential increases in deaths likely, leading to the introduction of some new restrictions. See, e.g., The Local, Italy declares three regions red zones as restrictions tighten, January 15, 2021, https://www.thelocal.it/20210115/italy-declares-three-regions-red-zones-as-restrictions-tighten.

Other countries in Europe are also seeing rising cases after drops in cases and deaths following introduction of restrictions and are often imposing or maintaining restrictions to address recent increases. See, e.g., The Local, French government extends 6pm curfew to whole country as Covid cases rise, January 14, 2021 (updated January 15), https://www.thelocal.fr/20210114/latest-french-government-to-announce-extra-restrictions-as-covid-cases-rise; France 24, France introduces tougher Covid-19 restrictions for non-EU travellers, January 15, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/france/20210115-france-introduces-tougher-covid-19-restrictions-for-non-eu-travellers; DW, Coronavirus: German Chancellor Angela Merkel urges ‘significantly’ tougher curbs — reports, January 15, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-german-chancellor-angela-merkel-urges-significantly-tougher-curbs-reports/a-56230751; El Pais, Spain reports 35,878 new coronavirus infections and 201 deaths, as third wave progresses, January 15, 2021, https://english.elpais.com/society/2021-01-15/spain-reports-35878-new-coronavirus-infections-and-201-deaths-as-third-wave-progresses.html (“Simón is taking for granted that the epidemiological curve will continue to rise for several more days, but he is hoping that the more restrictive measures that have been put in place after the Christmas holidays will put the brakes on the rhythm of infections.”).

Even in parts of Asia where there have been relatively few COVID-19 cases, recent increases have led to restrictions imposed in particular areas. See, e.g., NPR, Millions In China Under New Restrictions Amid COVID-19 Spike Near Beijing, January 9, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2021/01/09/955298826/millions-in-china-under-new-restrictions-amid-covid-19-spike-near-beijing; the Japan Times, Japan bars entry for new arrivals and business travelers due to new COVID-19 strains, January 14, 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/01/14/national/japan-bars-new-arrivals-business-travelers/; japan-guide.com, Travel Alerts and Disaster Updates, updated January 15, 2021, https://www.japan-guide.com/news/alerts.html (“Domestic Situation Although the virus has not spread in Japan at a rate seen in Europe and North America, infection numbers have increased considerably in recent weeks, and a state of
emergency was declared in 11 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, including in the greater Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka regions, to last until February 7.”); NPR, South Korea Tightens Restrictions During Holiday Period, December 22, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/12/22/949155094/south-korea-tightens-restrictions-during-holiday-period (“The new measures, which will be in effect through Jan. 3, follow the capital Seoul’s ban earlier in the week on private assembly of five or more people. The capital area, which accounts for more than 70% of last week’s new infections in South Korea, upped the regional alert level three times in the past month. But case numbers have yet to demonstrate a downward trend.”).

In India, where the government has worked hard to bring down the number of new cases in recent months and has had some significant success, many restrictions remain in place. See GardaWorld, India: Authorities extend domestic coronavirus disease controls through Jan. 31, 2021; international travel restrictions continue, December 29, 2020, https://www.garda.com/crisis24/news-alerts/422756/india-authorities-extend-domestic-coronavirus-disease-controls-through-jan-31-2021-international-travel-restrictions-continue-update-33.

Some governments have reduced economic recovery projections for 2021 because of the second wave of cases in the fall of 2020. See, e.g., Euronews, What does 2021 hold for jobs and businesses in Europe?, December 16, 2020, https://www.euronews.com/2020/12/16/what-does-2021-hold-for-jobs-and-businesses-in-europe (“The second wave of lockdowns devastated businesses across Europe and led the European Commission to downgrade its economic growth forecast for 2021 for the Eurozone from 6.1% down to 4.2%. It’s expected to be two years until the European economy comes close to its pre-pandemic level.”).

While other government 2021 projections show greater growth than was projected in the fall of 2020, the rebound is built on assumptions about stimulus funding, timing and effectiveness of vaccines and other elements. See, e.g., CNBC, Fed raises its economic outlook slightly, sees 4.2% growth next year and 5% unemployment rate, December 16, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/16/fed-raises-its-economic-outlook-slightly-sees-4point2percent-growth-next-year-and-5percent-unemployment-rate.html#:~:text=The%20Federal%20Reserve%20expects%20real,to%204.2%25%20from%204.0%25; The Conference Board, The Conference Board Economic Forecast for the US Economy, January 13, 2021, https://www.conference-board.org/research/us-forecast (“Our base case forecast yields 1Q21 real GDP growth of 2.0 percent* (annualized rate), and an annual expansion of 4.1 percent for 2021, following an annual contraction of 3.5 percent for 2020. We view this scenario as the most probable. It assumes: a) new cases of COVID-19 peak in early 1Q21 but no widespread lockdowns are implemented, b) vaccines are deployed gradually in 1Q21 but volumes accelerate into 2Q21, c) the December 2020 stimulus package is fully deployed in 1Q21 and an additional stimulus package is deployed in 2Q21, d) labor markets and consumption weaken slightly in 1Q21 but rebound in 2Q21 and 3Q21, and e) the political transition does not result in a hit to consumer or business confidence. These assumptions yield a lull in the recovery in 4Q20 and early 1Q21, but a steady acceleration of economic activity that peaks in the summer months as consumers eagerly spend on services and goods that they had forgone in 2020. In this scenario US monthly economic output returns to pre-pandemic levels in August 2021.”).

Growing concern over new strains of the COVID-19 and mounting new cases will be putting strain on many governments and keeping downward pressure on trade in services which the WTO has estimated as being down 30% globally in 2020. Travel and tourism have been decimated in 2020 and will continue to face major hurdles for at least the first half of 2021. International arrivals are down 70% for the year and more than 90% for the period since April 2020. See UNWTO, TOURISM BACK TO 1990 LEVELS AS ARRIVALS FALL BY MORE THAN 70%, 17 December 2020, https://www.unwto.org/news/tourism-back-to-1990-levels-as-arrivals-fall-by-more-than-70.

In the EU, a $2.1 trillion budget and coronavirus recovery package has been approved. See KFF, E.U. Leaders Agree To $2.1T Budget, Pandemic Recovery Fund; Main Science Research Program Receives Less Than Expected, Jul 21, 2020, https://www.kff.org/news-summary/e-u-leaders-agree-to-2-1t-budget-pandemic-recovery-fund-main-science-research-program-receives-less-than-expected/; Politico, EU leaders back deal to end budget blockade by Hungary and Poland, December 10, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/deal-reached-to-unblock-eu-budget-and-recovery-fund/.

In the United States, the recent $900 billion stimulus package was viewed as a temporary measure that would need to be supplemented in 2021. President-elect Biden announced on January 14, 2021 that he will be seeking a $1.9 trillion additional stimulus package to address the human costs of the pandemic, provide funding for people and businesses, strengthen efforts at vaccine distribution and vaccinations and other purposes. See, e.g., New York Times, Biden Outlines $1.9 Trillion Spending Package to Combat Virus and Downturn, January 14, 2021 (updated January 15), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/14/business/economy/biden-economy.html.

The stimulus packages by the EU (and member governments) and U.S. and other countries have kept demand higher than would otherwise have been possible but at the cost of significant increases in national debt which will reduce national flexibilities in later years.

In prior posts, I pointed out that the vaccine rollout, while promising, was facing a series of problems both at producers and in the ability of many governments to ramp up vaccinations. Moreover, the rapidity of the global economic rebound would depend on the speed of global vaccinations. See January 3, 2021, 2021 – how quickly will COVID-19 vaccines bring the pandemic under control?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/03/2021-how-quickly-will-covid-19-vaccines-bring-the-pandemic-under-control/; January 5, 2021,  Global economic rebound in 2021 will be affected by rate of vaccinations against COVID-19 – World Bank’s January 5, 2021 release of its World Economic Prospects report, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/05/global-economic-rebound-in-2021-will-be-affected-by-rate-of-vaccinations-against-covid-19-world-banks-january-5-2021-release-of-its-world-economic-prospects-report/.

There is also the question of whether variants of COVID-19 will be treatable as effectively by the currently approved vaccines. See, e.g., National Geographic, Existing vaccines should work against new coronavirus variants for now, January 15, 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2021/01/existing-vaccines-should-work-against-new-coronavirus-variants-for-now/; VOX, How the new Covid-19 variants could pose a threat to vaccination, January 7, 2021, https://www.vox.com/22213033/covid-19-mutation-variant-vaccine-uk-south-africa.

There continue to be problems with the rate of vaccinations in many countries who have access to vaccines although all governments area working on ways to speed up the vaccination process. There are also problems in terms of the ramp up of production and the slower than expected approval of some vaccines. See, e.g., Politico, Germans vexed as coronavirus vaccine rollout lags, January 12, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/coronavirus-story-kiel/; Politico, France rejects criticism of EU coronavirus vaccine procurement, January 10, 2021, ; Financial Times, Pfizer to limit vaccine deliveries temporarily to Europe, January 15, 2021,https://www.ft.com/content/e8177df6-04ae-4d20-8e62-ca76589c7653?desktop=true&segmentId=d8d3e364-5197-20eb-17cf-2437841d178a; BBC News, Coronavirus: Dutch shocked to be EU vaccination stragglers, January 6, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55549656; USA Today, Tracking COVID-19 vaccine distribution by state: How many people in the US have received a shot?, January 14, 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/graphics/2021/01/14/covid-vaccine-distribution-by-state-how-many-covid-vaccines-have-been-given-in-us-how-many-people/6599531002/ (“About 63.6% of the vaccines distributed haven’t been used yet.”).

Finally, while 49 countries have started to vaccinate their populations according to a recent article from Politico, the largest number of countries continue to wait for vaccines which will be helped when more vaccines are approved. See, e.g., Politico, Coronavirus vaccination in Europe — by the numbers, January 11, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/coronavirus-vaccination-europe-by-the-numbers/.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage globally and is becoming more concerning because of faster spreading variants that are showing up around the world. Since many western countries continue to have very high numbers of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, enormous pressure is on governments to get effective vaccines in large quantities as quickly as possible and get their populations vaccinated. Many countries with access to vaccines are having early problems in ramping up vaccinations. Some of the approved vaccinations are struggling with the production ramp up and being pressed to provide more volumes of vaccines in the absence of alternative vaccines from other producers. The main vaccines intended for broad distribution to many developing and least developed countries are either just starting to receive approvals for distribution or are still working through final trials. In a world quickly approaching 100 million reported cases and more than 2 million deaths and having suffered significant economic dislocations with services trade down an estimated 30 percent, with as many as 100 million people pushed into poverty, and 100-120 million people in the tourism sector having lost jobs, a global solution cannot occur soon enough. While 2021 will show significant improvements for many countries, the continuing challenges from COVID-19 will be with the world community for the foreseeable future.

U.S. Section 301 investigations on digital services taxes by trading partners — USTR releases additional reports on January 14, 2021

On January 8, 2021, I reviewed in a post the release of the first three of ten reports on investigations under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended, on countries’ digital services taxes (DSTs). See January 8, 2021, U.S. Section 301 investigations on digital service taxes by trading partners – an update, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/08/u-s-section-301-investigations-on-digital-service-taxes-by-trading-partners-an-update/ (release of reports on India, Italy and Turkey). The release of the three reports was accompanied by a decision to postpone indefinitely the imposition of additional duties on France for its DST to permit a coordinated response on all eleven countries following the completion of all investigations. The Federal Register notices on the India, Italy and Turkey investigations and the postponement of imposition of duties on France for its DST were published on January 12. See 86 FR 2477-78 (Italy); 86 FR 2478-79 (India); 86 FR 249-80 (France); 86 FR 2480 (Turkey).

On January 14, USTR released three additional reports on the DSTs of Austria, Spain and the United Kingdom and released a status report on the remaining four investigations on Brazil, the Czech Republic, the European Union, and Indonesia. See USTR press release, USTR Releases Findings and Updates in DST Investigations,
01/14/2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/january/ustr-releases-findings-and-updates-dst-investigations. The press release is embedded below but, similar to the earlier reports, found that “each of the DSTs discriminates against U.S. companies, is inconsistent with prevailing
principles of international taxation, and burden or restricts U.S. commerce.”

USTR-Releases-Findings-and-Updates-in-DST-Investigations-_-United-States-Trade-Representative

The press release notes that “’The taxation of companies that engage in international trade in goods and services is an important issue,’ stated U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer. ‘The best outcome would be for countries to come together to find a solution.’” As noted in the January 8 post, there is an ongoing process through the OECD/G20 Integrated Framework to find a solution by mid-2021.

For the four investigations where USTR has not yet published reports, USTR released a status report yesterday, reflecting the reality that the Trump Administration is in its final week and such unfinished investigations and issuance of reports will await the incoming Biden Administration. See Office of the United States Trade Representative, Section 301 Investigations, Status Update on Digital Services Tax Investigations of Brazil, the Czech Republic, the European Union, and Indonesia, https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/Press/Releases/StatusUpdate301InvestigationsBEUIndCR.pdf. The twenty page status report is embedded below.

StatusUpdate301InvestigationsBEUIndCR

The status update is organized as reviewed in the opening paragraph of the update.

“In this Status Update, USTR reports on the progress of the four investigations, offers brief descriptions of the four jurisdictions’ approach to digital services taxes, and describes our preliminary, high-level concerns. In the sections that follow, we address: the procedural developments in the four investigations (Section I); a description and preliminary analysis of Brazil’s DST proposal (Section II); a description and preliminary analysis of the Czech Republic’s DST proposal (Section III); a description and preliminary analysis of the EU’s
approach to digital services taxes (Section IV); and a description and preliminary analysis of Indonesia’s DST proposal (Section V).”

There is little doubt that when the four pending investigations are completed, there will be similar findings to those in the prior seven completed investigations.

As reviewed in the January 8 post, the OECD was to hold a virtual meeting on January 14-15, 2021 in an effort to obtain public input to refine the draft documents released in October and to help resolve remaining issues. The 11th plenary meeting of the 137 participating countries of the OECD/G20 Integrated Framework will be held virtually on January 27-29.

For the incoming Biden Administration, it will be facing in the early months of the new Administration critically important negotiations on the OECD/G20 proposals as well as the need to complete the investigations on the four unfinished 301 investigations on DSTs. The outcome and interplay of both will have significant implications for global trade and for fairness in international taxation.

Below are the reports on Austria, Spain and the United Kingdom and the notices sent to the Federal Register on each of the three investigations.

AustriaDSTSection301Report

AustriaDSTFRN

SpainDSTSection301Report

SpainDSTFRN

UKDSTSection301Report

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U.S. Section 301 investigations on digital service taxes by trading partners — an update

For all countries the question of tax base erosion and profit shifting during a period of tremendous growth in e-commerce has been important as countries struggle to secure funding sources in a rapidly changing global marketplace. Concerns about tax revenue sources has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic as e-commerce has surged and may countries tax revenues have shrunk which stimulus outlays have soured.

For a number of years the OECD and the G20 have been working with many other countries in what is called an integrated framework to examine how international taxation needs to change to reflect the changed economic environment. The U.S. unhappiness with many trading partners on the question of digital service taxes is the early adoption of taxes on digital services before the completion of international negotiations and, in particular, taxes which appear to the U.S. to discriminate against U.S. companies who often are major global players in e-commerce and digital services.

In a post from early June, I reviewed the actions of the United States in response to actions by trading partners to introduce digital services taxes (DST), including a first investigation under section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended (“section 301”) on France on their DST and the initiation of investigations under section 301 on nine other countries and the European Union. While USTR had identified additional tariffs of 100% on a variety of French products, the imposition of duties was postponed until January 6, 2021 to give negotiators time to reach an agreement within the OECD. See June 3, 2020:  Digital Services Taxes – New U.S. Section 301 Investigations on Nine Countries and the European Union, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/03/digital-services-taxes-new-u-s-section-301-investigations-on-nine-countries-and-the-european-union/.

Earlier this week, USTR issued three reports on three countries from the 2020 investigations — on India, Italy and Turkey. Parts of the USTR press release are copied below and, similar to the report on France, found the DSTs of the three countries were discriminatory to U.S. companies, contrary to international tax principles and burden or restrict U.S. commerce. See USTR press release, USTR Releases Findings in DST Investigations,
01/06/2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/january/ustr-releases-findings-dst-investigations.

“Washington, DC – The U.S. Trade Representative has issued findings in Section 301 investigations of Digital Service Taxes (DSTs) adopted by India, Italy, and Turkey, concluding that each of the DSTs discriminates against U.S. companies, is inconsistent with prevailing principles of international taxation, and burden or restricts U.S. commerce.

“The findings on each of the DSTs are supported by comprehensive reports, which are being published today on USTR’s website.

“USTR is not taking any specific actions in connection with the findings at this time but will continue to evaluate all available options.

“The Section 301 investigations of the DSTs adopted by India, Italy, and Turkey were initiated in June 2020, along with investigations of DSTs adopted or under consideration by Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the European Union, Indonesia, Spain, and the United Kingdom. USTR expects to announce the progress or completion of additional DST investigations in the near future.”

Similarly, on January 7, 2021, USTR announced that it was postponing introduction of tariffs on French products that were due to kick in on January 6 to provide the agency with the ability to coordinate its actions based on the results of the other ongoing investigations. See USTR press release, Suspension of Tariff Action in France Digital Services Tax Investigation, 01/07/2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/january/suspension-tariff-action-france-digital-services-tax-investigation. The press release is copied below.

“Washington, DC – The U.S. Trade Representative has determined to suspend the tariff action in the Section 301 investigation of France’s Digital Services Tax (DST). The additional tariffs on certain products of France were announced in July 2020, and were scheduled to go into effect on January 6, 2021. The U.S. Trade Representative has decided to suspend the tariffs in light of the ongoing investigation of similar DSTs adopted or under consideration in ten other jurisdictions. Those investigations have significantly progressed, but have not yet reached a determination on possible trade actions. A suspension of the tariff action in the France DST investigation will promote a coordinated response in all of the ongoing DST investigations.

“The suspension of the France DST tariffs is set out in a notice sent for publication in the Federal Register.”

The three notices on the India, Italy and Turkey investigations were sent to the Federal Register on January 6 and will appear in the Federal Register next week. The same is true on the postponement of tariffs on France which was forwarded yesterday to the Federal Register and which should appear next week as well.

The three USTR reports released on January 6 and the four notices sent to the Federal Register by USTR on January 6 or 7 are embedded below.

Report-on-Indias-Digital-Services-Tax

Report-on-Italys-Digital-Services-Tax

Report-on-Turkeys-Digital-Services-Tax

IndiaDSTFRNJLB

ItalyDSTFRNJLB

TurkeyDSTFRNJLB

FRN-France-DST-Modification-2021.01.07

The OECD/G20 Integrated Framework talks

The OECD/G20 Integrated Framework negotiations on arriving at tax policies for an increasingly digitalized global economy have been ongoing for a number of years and include 137 countries.

The OECD/G20 Integrated Framework project released a series of reports on policy issues and approaches to address international taxation in the age of digitalisation in early October to address base erosion profit shifting (“BEPS”) and have moved the target date for completion from the end of 2020 to mid-2021. The reports released attempt to address at least some of the U.S. concerns. The OECD has sought public comments, received more than 270 comments and is holding a virtual meeting on January 14-15 in an effort to obtain public input to refine the draft documents and help resolve remaining issues. The 11th plenary meeting of the 137 participating countries of the OECD/G20 Integrated Framework will be held virtually on January 27-29.

A series of documents released in October that permit a better understanding of the complexities involved in seeking a way forward are listed next. For non-tax readers, the “Top 10 Frequently Asked Questions” is a good primer on the issues and challenges. See OECD/G20 Inclusive Framework on BEPS, Addressing the Tax Challenges Arising from the Digitalisation of the Economy, HIGHLIGHTS, October 2020, https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/brochure-addressing-the-tax-challenges-arising-from-the-digitalisation-of-the-economy-october-2020.pdf; OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project, Tax Challenges Arising
from Digitalisation – Report on Pillar One Blueprint, October 2020, https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/tax-challenges-arising-from-digitalisation-report-on-pillar-one-blueprint-beba0634-en.htm; OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project, Tax Challenges Arising from Digitalisation – Report on Pillar Two Blueprint, October 2020, https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/tax-challenges-arising-from-digitalisation-report-on-pillar-two-blueprint-abb4c3d1-en.htm; OECD/G20 Inclusive Framework on BEPS, PUBLIC CONSULTATION DOCUMENT, Reports on the Pillar One and Pillar Two Blueprints, 12 October 2020 – 14 December 2020, https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/public-consultation-document-reports-on-pillar-one-and-pillar-two-blueprints-october-2020.pdf; OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project, Tax Challenges Arising from Digitalisation – Economic Impact Assessment, October 2020, https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/tax-challenges-arising-from-digitalisation-economic-impact-assessment-0e3cc2d4-en.htm; OECD, Tax Issues Arising from Digitalisation, Top 10 Frequently Asked Questions, October 2020, https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/top-10-frequently-asked-questions-tax-challenges-digitalisation.pdf; Public consultation meeting on the Reports on the Pillar One and Pillar Two Blueprints (Date 14-15 January 2021), https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/public-consultation-meeting-reports-on-the-pillar-one-and-pillar-two-blueprints.htm; 11th meeting of the OECD/G20 Inclusive Framework on BEPS (Date 27-28 January 2021 (Inclusive Framework plenary); 29 January 2021 (Tax and Development briefings)), https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/oecd-g20-inclusive-framework-on-beps-meeting-january-2021.htm.

To understand some of the concerns of U.S. businesses or business groups with actions of particular trading partners, a review of several comments to the OECD/G20 may be useful. I embed below comments from the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland, Amazon and the Business Roundtable. The Amcham Ireland paper comments on non-discrimination, multilateralism, administrability and certainty, avoiding double taxation, durability, efficiency, scope, safe harbour, segmentation and the interaction with the US’s Global intangible low-taxed income (GILTI). Amazon explores issues in the two pillar blueprints dealing with segmentation, sourcing, user location/IP address, business-to-business sales, reasonable steps/evidence requirements, double tax relief, dispute prevention and resolution, marketing and distribution safe harbour, GILTI Co-existence, framework for implementation, double-tax relief, application of STTR, and additional areas for simplification. The Business Roundtable (BR) has an overview section in which they “affirm certain principles of international income taxation” as being critical to a strong and growing global economy. One of the principles is that taxation should be of net business profits, not gross revenue. BR also provides seven comments on specific aspects of Pillar One and/or Two which are similar to concerns raised by the other U.S. interests. Comment 4 states “An agreement on Pillar One must include repeal of existing unilateral measures and a commitment to refrain from imposing any new unilateral measures aimed at profit reallocation or the digital economy.” It is the unilateral actions of trading partners that are perceived to discriminate against U.S. companies, often base tax on revenue versus profit and deviate from other established international taxation principles that is causing concern in the U.S. business community and resulting in U.S. investigations under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended.

American-Chamber-of-Commerce-Ireland

Amazon

Business-Roundtable-BRT

Conclusion

With the Trump Administration in its last twelve days, it is unknown if USTR will be able to complete the remaining seven 301 investigations on Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the European Union, Indonesia, Spain, and the United Kingdom to accompany the three reports released on the 6th of January dealing with India, Italy, and Turkey and the earlier report and proposed action on France. My guess is that this will be a primary focus of USTR in the next week and a half so that a full set of reports is available and possibly a recommendation for action on all eleven reports. Whether the remaining investigations are completed by January 20 or not, the Biden Administration will be confronted with the ongoing OECD/G20 process with a target completion in the front half of 2021 and a host of governments implementing DSTs unilaterally ahead of any agreement among the Integrated Framework members. Action under 301 is an option should trading partners pursue approaches to DSTs that in fact discriminate against U.S. companies or deviate from what the OECD/G20 process is likely to generate as a final package.

2021 – how quickly will COVID-19 vaccines bring the pandemic under control?

News accounts report many countries starting to receive at least some doses of vaccines. In the United States, two vaccines have received emergency use authorization (“EUA”)(the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines). The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has received approval (emergency use or other) in a number of countries (EU, Canada, United Kingdom, Bahrain) and was the first vaccine to receive an EUA from the World Health Organization. See WHO press release, WHO issues its first emergency use validation for a COVID-19 vaccine and emphasizes need for equitable global access, December 31, 2020, https://www.who.int/news/item/31-12-2020-who-issues-its-first-emergency-use-validation-for-a-covid-19-vaccine-and-emphasizes-need-for-equitable-global-access. As the WHO press releases indicates, “The WHO’s Emergency Use Listing (EUL) opens the door for countries to expedite their own regulatory approval processes to import and administer the vaccine. It also enables UNICEF and the Pan-American Health Organization to procure the vaccine for distribution to countries in need.”

AstraZeneca will likely seek emergency use authorization in the United States in January and Johnson & Johnson in February. AstraZeneca has received an emergency use authorization in the United Kingdom. It has also been given EUA by India (along with a vaccine from Bharat Biotech). See New York Times, India Approves Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 Vaccine and 1 other, January 3, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/03/world/asia/india-covid-19-vaccine.html.

A recent Financial Times article includes a graph showing the number of citizens in various countries who have received a first vaccination shot. See Financial Times, European leaders under pressure to speed up mass vaccination, January 1, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/c45e5d1c-a9ea-4838-824c-413236190e7e. The countries shown as having started vaccinations include China, the U.S., the U.K., Kuwait, Mexico, Canada, Chile, Russia, Argentina, Iceland, Bahrain, Oman, Israel, and fourteen of the 27 members of the EU).

Similarly an article from CGTN on January 1, 2021 shows a number of countries who are buying COVID-19 vaccines from China including Hungary and a number of others while vaccines from China are in stage 3 trials in a number of countries. CGTN, 1 January 2021, Hungary to focus on EU, Chinese coronavirus vaccine purchases, https://news.cgtn.com/news/2021-01-01/Hungary-to-focus-on-EU-Chinese-coronavirus-vaccine-purchases-WHm11NYjni/index.html. “By the end of 2020, UAE became the first country to roll out a Chinese vaccine to the public. Pakistan also announced on Thursday that they will purchase 1.2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from China’s Sinopharm after China officially approved the vaccine for general public use. Sinovac’s CoronaVac shot, another candidate vaccine in China, has been signed up for purchase deals with Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, Chile, and Singapore. The company is also in supply talks with Malaysia and the Philippines.”

So the good news at the beginning of 2021 is that effective vaccines are starting to be distributed. Many others are in late stages of trials, giving hope to a significant number of vaccines approved for use in the coming months. The WHO’s list of vaccines in development and their status can be found on the WHO website at this cite. https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/draft-landscape-of-covid-19-candidate-vaccines. How quickly approved vaccines can be produced, distributed and vaccinations given globally will determine when the pandemic will be brought under control. There are many challenges that the world faces in getting to the hoped for situation of a pandemic that is in the past.

For example, even in developed countries, governments are finding that there are significant hurdles in getting production volumes up to promised levels, and much greater challenges in going from production to distribution to vaccinations. In the United States, the Trump Administration had aimed at having 20 million vaccinations accomplished by the end of 2020. Only 13.071 million doses were distributed by the end of the year according to the US CDC and only 4.2 million vaccinations (first shot of two shots) occurred. See Center for Disease Prevention and Control, COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States, https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#vaccinations (viewed Jan. 3, 2021). President-elect Biden is talking about an aggressive program to get 100 million vaccinations (as the current vaccines require 2 shots, this means 50 million people) vaccinated in the first 100 days of his Administration (by the end of April). To achieve this objective will require cooperation from Congress in providing sufficient funding to build up the capabilities at the state and local levels. Health care infrastructure has been reduced over the last dozen years with a reduction of some 50,000 health care workers in the U.S. The huge COVID-19 case load in the United States and record hospitalizations also have health care operations across the United States overextended. So despite having sufficient vaccines on order from four companies where EUAs have been or will likely be granted in the near future to permit vaccination of all Americans by fall, there are enormous practical challenges to making the vaccinations happen in fact. And that is before the challenges of convincing portions of the population of the safety of the vaccines and the need for the vast majority of people to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

Similar challenges exist in many other parts of the world as well. For example, in both the EU and India the roll out of vaccines is proceeding slower than desired. See, e.g., The Guardian, BioNTech criticises EU failure to order enough Covid vaccine, January 1, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/01/france-to-step-up-covid-jabs-after-claims-of-bowing-to-anti-vaxxers; Politico, France under pressure to speed up coronavirus vaccine rollout, January 3, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/france-under-pressure-to-speed-up-coronavirus-vaccine-rollout/; New York Times, India Approves Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 Vaccine and 1 other, January 3, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/03/world/asia/india-covid-19-vaccine.html (“The Serum Institute, an Indian drug maker that struck a deal to produce the Oxford vaccine even before its effectiveness had been proven, has managed to make only about one-tenth of the 400 million doses it had committed to manufacturing before the end of the year.”).

The WHO/GAVI/CEPI effort to get vaccines to the world on a equitable basis has much of its vaccine commitments in products still in the testing stage although roughly one billion doses can be available for a vaccine currently approved on an emergency use basis in the U.K. and India (the AstraZeneca vaccine) through COVAX agreements with AstraZeneca directly and with an Indian producer who can be asked to produce one of two potential vaccines, including the AstraZeneca one. See WHO, COVAX Announces additional deals to access promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates; plans global rollout starting Q1 2021, 18 December 2020, https://www.who.int/news/item/18-12-2020-covax-announces-additional-deals-to-access-promising-covid-19-vaccine-candidates-plans-global-rollout-starting-q1-2021.

“Geneva/Oslo, 18 December 2020

“COVAX, the global initiative to ensure rapid and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries, regardless of income level, today announced that it had arrangements in place to access nearly two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidates, on behalf of 190 participating economies. For the vast majority of these deals, COVAX has guaranteed access to a portion of the first wave of production, followed by volume scales as further supply becomes available. The arrangements announced today will enable all participating economies to have access to doses in the first half of 2021, with first deliveries anticipated to begin in the first quarter of 2021 – contingent upon regulatory approvals and countries’ readiness for delivery.

“Given these are arrangements for 2 billion doses of vaccine candidates which are still under development, COVAX will continue developing its portfolio: this will be critical to achieve its goal of securing access to 2 billion doses of safe and effective, approved vaccines that are suitable for all participants’ contexts, and available by the end of 2021. However, today’s announcements offer the clearest pathway yet to end the acute phase of the pandemic by protecting the most vulnerable populations around the world. This includes delivering at least 1.3 billion donor-funded doses of approved vaccines in 2021 to the 92 low- and middle-income economies eligible for the COVAX AMC.

“The new deals announced today include the signing of an advance purchase agreement with AstraZeneca for 170 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford candidate, and a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Johnson & Johnson for 500 million doses of the Janssen candidate, which is currently being investigated as a single dose vaccine.. These deals are in addition to existing agreements COVAX has with the Serum Institute of India (SII) for 200 million doses – with options for up to 900 million doses more – of either the AstraZeneca/Oxford or Novavax candidates, as well as a statement of intent for 200million doses of the Sanofi/GSK vaccine candidate.

“In addition to this, COVAX also has – through R&D partnership agreements – first right of refusal in 2021 to access potentially more than one billion doses (based on current estimates from the manufacturing processes under development) that will be produced, subject to technical success and regulatory approval, by candidates in the COVAX R&D Portfolio.”

* * *

“The COVAX Facility currently has 190 participating economies. This includes 98 higher-income economies and 92 low- and middle-income economies eligible to have their participation in the Facility supported via the financing mechanism known as the Gavi COVAX AMC. Of the 92 economies eligible to be supported by the COVAX AMC, 86 have now submitted detailed vaccine requests, offering the clearest picture yet on actual global demand for COVID-19 vaccines.

“In addition to gathering detailed information on participating economies’ vaccine requests, COVAX, through Gavi, UNICEF,WHO, the World Bank, and other partners has been working closely with all countries in the Facility, particularly AMC-eligible participants, to help plan and prepare for the widespread roll out of vaccines. Conditions that determine country readiness include regulatory preparedness as well as the availability of infrastructure, appropriate legal frameworks, training, and capacity, among other factors.

“’Securing access to doses of a new vaccine for both higher-income and lower-income countries, at roughly the same time and during a pandemic, is a feat the world has never achieved before – let alone at such unprecedented speed and scale,’ said Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which leads on procurement and delivery for COVAX. ‘COVAX has now built a platform that offers the world the prospect, for the first time, of being able to defeat the pandemic on a global basis, but the work is not done: it’s critical that both governments and industry continue to support our efforts to achieve this goal’.

Early pledges towards 2021 fundraising targets

“To achieve this ambitious goal, COVAX currently estimates it needs to raise an additional US$ 6.8 billion in 2021 – US$ 800 million for research and development, at least US$ 4.6 billion for the COVAX AMC and US$ 1.4 billion for delivery support.

“Support for the COVAX AMC will be critical to ensuring ability to pay is not a barrier to access. Thanks to the generous support of sovereign, private sector, and philanthropic donors, the AMC has met its urgent 2020 fundraising target of US$ 2 billion, but at least US$ 4.6 billion more is needed in 2021 to procure doses of successful candidates as they come through the portfolio.”

In the United States and in the EU, governments are looking to expand volumes of proven vaccines while awaiting approval of other vaccine candidates. See Pfizer press release, PFIZER AND BIONTECH TO SUPPLY THE U.S. WITH100 MILLION ADDITIONAL DOSES OF COVID-19VACCINE, December 23, 2020, https://www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-supply-us-100-million-additional-doses; Pfizer press release, PFIZER AND BIONTECH TO SUPPLY THEEUROPEAN UNION WITH 100 MILLIONADDITIONAL DOSES OF COMIRNATY®, December 29, 2020, https://www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-supply-european-union-100-million; HHS, Trump Administration purchases additional 100 million doses of COVID-19 investigational vaccine from Moderna, December 11, 2020, https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2020/12/11/trump-administration-purchases-additional-100-million-doses-covid-19-investigational-vaccine-moderna.html.

Conclusion

The world is anxiously awaiting the resolution of the pandemic through the approval and distribution of effective vaccines on a global basis in 2021. The good news is that a number of vaccines have been approved in one or more countries and billions of doses of approved vaccines will likely be produced in 2021. The efforts of the WHO, GAVI and CEPI and the generosity of many nations, private and philanthropic organizations will mean people in nearly all countries will receive at least some significant volume of vaccines in 2021. As most vaccines require two shots, the number of people vaccinated in 2021 in an optimistic scenario is probably less than two billion. The world population at the beginning of 2021 is 7.8 billion people. Thus, 2021, even under an optimistic scenario, will not likely result in the eradication of the pandemic around the world.

Even in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and the 27 members of the European Union where advance purchases should result in sufficient doses being available to vaccinate all eligible members of society, there are massive challenges in terms of distribution and vaccinating the numbers of people involved and educating the populations on the safety and benefits of the vaccines. Thus, even in wealthier countries it will be optimistic to achieve the desired levels of vaccination by the end of 2021.

The Director-General of the WHO in his year-end message laid out the likely situation for the world in 2021, the availability of vaccines but the continued need to be vigilant and adhere to preventive measures to control the pandemic and the need to work collectively to ensure equitable and affordable access to vaccines for all. See WHO,COVID-19: One year later – WHO, Director-General’s new year message, December 30, 2020, https://www.who.int/news/item/30-12-2020-covid-19-anniversary-and-looking-forward-to-2021 (Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General)

“As people around the world celebrated New Year’s Eve 12 months ago, a new global threat emerged.

“Since that moment, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken so many lives and caused massive disruption to families, societies and economies all over the world.

“But it also triggered the fastest and most wide-reaching response to a global health emergency in human history.

“The hallmarks of this response have been an unparalleled mobilization of science, a search for solutions and a commitment to global solidarity.

“Acts of generosity, large and small, equipped hospitals with the tools that health workers needed to stay safe and care for their patients.

“Outpourings of kindness have helped society’s most vulnerable through troubled times.

“Vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics have been developed and rolled out, at record speed, thanks to collaborations including the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator.

“Equity is the essence of the ACT Accelerator, and its vaccine arm, COVAX, which has secured access to 2 billion doses of promising vaccine candidates.

“Vaccines offer great hope to turn the tide of the pandemic.

“But to protect the world, we must ensure that all people at risk everywhere – not just in countries who can afford vaccines –are immunized.

“To do this, COVAX needs just over 4 billion US dollars urgently to buy vaccines for low- and lower-middle income countries.

“This is the challenge we must rise to in the new year.

“My brothers and sisters, the events of 2020 have provided telling lessons, and reminders, for us all to take into 2021.

“First and foremost, 2020 has shown that governments must increase investment in public health, from funding access to COVID vaccines for all people, to making our systems better prepared to prevent and respond to the next, inevitable, pandemic.

“At the heart of this is investing in universal health coverage to make health for all a reality.

“Second, as it will take time to vaccinate everyone against COVID, we must keep adhering to tried and tested measures that keep each and all of us safe.

“This means maintaining physical distance, wearing face masks, practicing hand and respiratory hygiene, avoiding crowded indoor places and meeting people outside.

“These simple, yet effective measures will save lives and reduce the suffering that so many people encountered in 2020.

“Third, and above all, we must commit to working together in solidarity, as a global community, to promote and protect health today, and in the future.

“We have seen how divisions in politics and communities feed the virus and foment the crisis.

“But collaboration and partnership save lives and safeguard societies.

“In 2020, a health crisis of historic proportions showed us just how closely connected we all are.

“We saw how acts of kindness and care helped neighbors through times of great struggle.

“But we also witnessed how acts of malice, and misinformation, caused avoidable harm.

“Going into 2021, we have a simple, yet profound, choice to make:

“Do we ignore the lessons of 2020 and allow insular, partisan approaches, conspiracy theories and attacks on science to prevail, resulting in unnecessary suffering to people’s health and society at large?

“Or do we walk the last miles of this crisis together, helping each other along the way, from sharing vaccines fairly, to offering accurate advice, compassion and care to all who need, as one global family.

“The choice is easy.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel, and we will get there by taking the path together.

“WHO stands with you – We Are Family and we are In This Together.

“I wish you and your loved ones a peaceful, safe and healthy new year.”

We all want to have the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview mirror as 2021 progresses. There is hope for significant progress this year. How much progress will depend on the will of governments and peoples to focus on the eradication of the pandemic and to support the dramatic ramp up of production, distribution and vaccination of the world’s people.

In last two weeks, United States adds more than three million new confirmed COVID-19 cases; world approaches nine million new cases; first vaccines start to ship in United Kingdom, Canada, Bahrain, United States and shortly in the European Union; hope for a better 2021

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) shifted from a daily report on global cases to a weekly total last week. In today’s report, the United States becomes the only country to record more than three million new cases in a two week period. ECDC, COVID-19 situation update worldwide, as of week 51 2020. It is also the only country to have recorded 2,000,000 in a two week period. The 3,087,841 new cases in weeks 50 and 51 constitute 34.73% of the global total of 8,888,940 new cases in the last two weeks and was 4.68 times the number reported in Brazil (660,079), 8.16 times the number reported in India — the two countries after the United States with the most cases. For the full 2020, the United States has accounted for 23.47% (17,844,839) of global cases (76,046,387) despite being only 4.3% of the global population.

The weekly total for the United States has been an almost uninterrupted surge in new cases for the last three months or so. Below are the data as compiled by the ECDC for weeks 37-51 for the United States. Deaths have also been climbing rapidly but at a slower rate than new cases. The U.S. accounts for 18.75% (317,670) of global deaths (1,693,858) in 2020 from COVID-19 and a higher percentage in recent weeks. Deaths for the same weeks for the U.S. are shown below. The U.S. is seeing deaths approaching 3,000/day with some days as high as 4,000+. With hospitalizations at all time highs, and surging cases and rising deaths, the U.S. is likely to surpass 400,000 deaths by January 20, 2021 when President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in.

Number of new COVID-19 cases reported by the U.S.Week in 2020No. of deaths reported in the U.S.
             243,5582020-37  5,138               
             284,8352020-38 5,430
             310,2322020-39 5,247
             302,7992020-40 5,038
             344,6992020-41 4,977
             392,0512020-42 4,903
             481,5702020-43 5,556
             571,1972020-44 5,766
             764,2892020-45 6,576
         1,065,4102020-46 8,642
         1,209,8482020-47 10,568
         1,136,4122020-48 10,091
         1,373,6772020-49 15,437
         1,499,7562020-50 16,867
         1,588,0852020-51 18,493

The good news is the approval of the first vaccines in the U.S., approvals in a number of other countries of at least one vaccine (United Kingdom, Canada, Bahrain, European Union) and more vaccines getting close to completing their trials. See, e.g., New York Times, E.U. Approves Pfizer Vaccine, Setting Stage for High-Stakes Rollout, December 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/21/world/europe/eu-coronavirus-vaccine.html. These western vaccines are in addition to the ones produced in China and the Russia Federation that were released before all trials were completed.

However, even for countries who have lined up large volumes of vaccines through up-front contracts for delivery in December or the front half of 2021, countries who have approved one or more of the western company vaccines are still months away from having enough people vaccinated to make a significant dent in the levels of new cases or deaths without strong efforts to maintain social distancing, wear masks, minimize size of gatherings, washing hands, etc.

With mutations of the virus having appeared in the U.K. and elsewhere, it is also unclear how efficacious the early vaccines will be on the mutations. Early information on the news today, suggests at least some reduction in effectiveness is likely, which could have implications for the percentage of the population needed to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. Many countries are banning travel from the U.K. in an effort to prevent the spread of the mutant variation of COVID-19 identified in the U.K. which is believed to spread much more easily. See Politico, Mutant coronavirus strain: What we know so far, December 21, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/mutant-coronavirus-strain-what-we-know-so-far/.

While the short-term future has many challenges, many are hopeful that 2021 will see the COVID-19 pandemic being handled as vaccines are approved and produced and distributed to all peoples around the world to permit a return to greater normalcy. See Time, What Bill Gates Thinks About the State of the Fight Against COVID-19, December 22, 2020, https://time.com/5923916/bill-gates-covid-19-letter/; Bill Gates, YEAR IN REVIEW, These breakthroughs will make 2021 better than 2020, The latest on the innovations that will let us go back to normal, December 20, 2020, https://www.gatesnotes.com/About-Bill-Gates/Year-in-Review-2020.

The WTO has both been monitoring trade restrictive and liberalizing actions taken by Members relating to the pandemic and has also recently put out a paper reviewing trade policy issues that can arise as the world shifts to the production and distribution of vaccines around the world. See WTO, TRIPS, WTO paper explores role of trade policy in the rapid roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, December 22, 2020, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/trip_22dec20_e.htm. The press release describes the content of the new paper as follows:

“The WTO Secretariat has published a new information note on trade-related issues for COVID-19 vaccine production, manufacturing and deployment. The note, entitled ‘Developing and delivering COVID-19
vaccines around the world,’ explores how trade policy can play its part in ensuring the rapid roll-out of vaccines against COVID-19.

“The paper goes into further detail on key topics included in two documents previously published on the WTO website: ‘Infographic: Developing & delivering COVID-19 vaccines around the world’ (https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/vaccine_infographic_e.pdf) and ‘Developing & delivering COVID-19 vaccines around the world: A checklist of issues with trade impact’
(https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/vaccine_checklist_e.pdf) .

“The new information note comprises three sections. Section A provides background information on immunization and the urgent search for vaccines against COVID-19. This section points to immunization as a key component of primary health care and highlights the ambitious national and global targets that have been set for COVID-19 vaccines. According to the World Health Organization (https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/fair-allocation-mechanism-for-covid-19-vaccines-through-the-covax-facility) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/covax-explained), two billion COVID-19 vaccine doses are to be distributed by the end of 2021, with an allocation for every country equal to 20 per cent of the population so as to cover prioritized target groups.

“Section B provides an overview of the development and delivery of vaccines in the form of an infographic listing seven steps in this process: vaccine development, domestic approval (manufacture), vaccine manufacture, domestic approval (importer), international distribution, border clearance, and domestic distribution and surveillance.

“Finally, Section C identifies where key decisions with trade impact may need to be made along the vaccine value chain and provides a non-exhaustive list of useful resources to help inform decision-making. This section includes a checklist of trade issues to consider along with the COVID-19 vaccine value chain, as well as a world map of clinical trials and partnerships on COVID-19 treatments.

“The report can be found here (https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/vaccine_report_e.pdf).”

The report is embedded below.

vaccine_report_e

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the world in 2020. Some continents have come through with relatively few cases (Africa) or have often been successful in minimizing outbreaks (significant parts of Asia, Oceania). Europe was hit hard early (March-April) and suffered a much bigger second surge in the September -November period though renewed restrictions have brought case numbers down significantly in December. The Americas has had the highest number of cases and deaths of any region. The United States has gone through a number of surges and is currently exceeding or close to exceeding medical facility capabilities in many parts of the country. So 2020 is ending in a spiraling crisis in the United States. The arrival of vaccines is welcome news for all peoples but will take considerable time to be produced and distributed both within countries with high infection rates and to the rest of the world.

The role of trade in a pandemic is largely focused on keeping markets open for the movement of medical goods and food products. While a large number of countries have introduced some export restrictions on medical goods (and some on food products), many countries have also introduced actions to speed movement of medical goods and to lower costs. While there have not been new multilateral agreements to keep markets open or liberalize trade in medical goods, there have been some efforts at cooperation and coordination by at least some countries.

While the actions taken by governments to try to control the virus led to significant contractions in trade in the second quarter of 2020, much of prior trade flows were restored in the third quarter but will likely see some reductions in the fourth with the second wave of restrictions on activities in many countries in the last month or two. Certain service sectors (travel and tourism generally; air transport, restaurants, hotels specifically) have been very hard hit by the restrictions imposed with many businesses closing, more than 100 million people unemployed or underemployed in the sector and a post-pandemic world likely to be much changed particularly in sectors like restaurants that are dominated by small business operators. Most projections don’t see a restoration of global GDP levels to those achieved in 2019 until at least 2022.

Trillions of dollars have been poured into a number of countries as stimulus to prevent the further collapse of the economies involved. Those actions have reduced the size of the downturn which still is the worst since World War II for much of the world. The size of the stimulus infusions have also greatly increased the level of debts for the countries engaged in the stimulus activities. For countries without the ability to borrow huge sums for stimulus, the contraction in GDP has often been severe with gains from the last decade being wiped out in some cases.

So the world needs 2021 to be better than 2020. How the efforts at vaccine development proceed and the level of commitment and funding for production expansion and global distribution will be major factors in whether 2021 fulfills the promise of equitable and affordable access to vaccines and therapeutics needed to get the world back to a more normal place.

Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights meeting of December 10, 2020 – no resolution on proposed waiver of TRIPS obligations to address the pandemic

On December 10th, the WTO Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights held a meeting to consider a proposed waiver for all countries of various TRIPS Agreement obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have previously looked at the proposed waiver and reactions thereto in two prior posts. See December 6, 2020, Upcoming December 11th Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights meeting – reaction to proposed waiver from TRIPS obligations to address COVID-19, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/06/upcoming-december-11th-wto-council-for-trade-related-aspects-of-intellectual-property-rights-meeting-reaction-to-proposed-waiver-from-trips-obligations-to-address-covid-19/ (date of meeting incorrectly listed as December 11); November 2, 2020:  India and South Africa seek waiver from WTO intellectual property obligations to add COVID-19 – issues presented, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/02/india-and-south-africa-seek-waiver-from-wto-intellectual-property-obligations-to-address-covid-19-issues-presented/.

The WTO press release on the meeting indicates that Members will continue to discuss the proposal in future meetings as there was no consensus yet on the proposed waiver. See WTO press release, December 10, 2020, Members to continue discussion on proposal for temporary IP waiver in response to COVID-19, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/trip_10dec20_e.htm. The meeting was held to permit the Council to prepare a report to the General Council ahead of its December 16 meeting. As noted in the press release,

“As a result of the consultations, the chair proposed that the TRIPS Council provide a neutral and factual communication to the General Council reflecting the state of play of discussions and the absence of consensus on the waiver proposal in the TRIPS Council at this time. The communication would indicate that the TRIPS Council has not yet completed its consideration of the waiver request and may not be able to do so within the 90 days stipulated. Therefore, it would propose that the TRIPS Council continues its consideration of the waiver request and reports back to the General Council as stipulated in Article IX:3 of the Marrakesh Agreement.”

The next scheduled TRIPS Council meeting is scheduled for March, but the Chair indicated informal meetings may be held in January and February to work on a path forward.

The press release in its entirety is embedded below.

WTO-_-2020-News-items-Members-to-continue-discussion-on-proposal-for-temporary-IP-waiver-in-response-to-COVID-19

There remains a sharp divide between the proponents and their supporters on the one hand who argue that TRIPS obligations will hinder speedy and equitable distribution of vaccines and other materials needed for handling the pandemic and the range of Members who opposed a waiver on the basis that there hasn’t been a factual showing that TRIPS flexibilities don’t address concerns and that TRIPS provisions are not the only issue that goes to production capacity and production.

As noted in my last post, four WTO Members (Australia, Canada, Chile and Mexico) have proposed a series of questions for Members to consider and respond to in an effort to develop a factual record for what actual problems Members are having so any waiver or other action would respond to actual versus feared potential problems. There was no public indication of whether WTO Members will respond to the questions and/or otherwise cooperate in the establishment of a data base of challenges being experienced in fact by Members in addressing the pandemic.

Trade press have reported on the meeting and the continued disagreement between the two groups of Members. See, e.g., Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, December 10, 2020, WTO members to continue talks on TRIPS waiver, but no consensus in sight, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/wto-members-continue-talks-trips-waiver-no-consensus-sight (“The U.S., the European Union and Japan, among others, oppose the waiver, insisting that intellectual property protections are necessary to spur innovation and collaboration. The U.S. on Thursday called instead for members to identify specific problems related to accessing a product and then find targeted solutions. * * * Canada on Thursday argued that the built-in flexibility of the agreement is proven to work, citing the example of Canada’s issuance, in 2017, of a compulsory license granting a Canadian company permission to use nine patents in producing an HIV drug for Rwanda.”); Washington Trade Daily, December 11, 2020, TRIPS Waiver Talks to Continue, https://files.constantcontact.com/ef5f8ffe501/25ec633d-96b4-44cd-8c0d-2eb9108795b9.pdf (pages 2-4).

Look for the proposed waiver to be a topic of continued disagreement within the TRIPS Council in 2021 until such time as there is a much clearer picture of the actual problems to which a much narrower waiver would actually be needed and effective if nonwaiver options are not available. With vaccine approvals starting and with production and distribution being ramped up in 2021, there will be materials delivered to many countries next year either through COVAX or through voluntary licensing arrangements. As noted in an earlier post, there are several billion vaccine doses capacity available through these current options.

Upcoming December 11th WTO Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights meeting — reaction to proposed waiver from TRIPS obligations to address COVID-19

In my post of November 2, 2020, I reviewed a proposed waiver from many TRIPS obligations for all countries to address the COVID-19 pandemic. See November 2, 2020, India and South Africa seek waiver from WTO intellectual property obligations to add COVID-19 – issues presented, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/02/india-and-south-africa-seek-waiver-from-wto-intellectual-property-obligations-to-address-covid-19-issues-presented/. While originally filed by India and South Africa (IP/C/W/669), a few other countries have joined the proposal including Eswatini (IP/C/W/669/Add.1), Kenya (IP/C/W/669/Add.1), Mozambique (IP/C/W/669/Add.2) and Pakistan (IP/C/W/669/Add.3). South Africa made a supplemental filing providing what it described as “Examples of IP Issues and Barriers in COVID-19 pandemic”. Communication from South Africa, Examples of IP Issues and Barriers in COVID-19 Pandemic, IP/C/W/670, 23 November 2020. The South African communication is embedded below.

W670

My post of November 2 had raised a number of question presented by the proposed waiver:

” The proposal raises a series of questions that should be addressed to understand whether the waiver is appropriate. These questions include whether such a broad waiver request is appropriate or envisioned by Article IX:3 and 4 of the Marrakesh Agreement? Shouldn’t those requesting a waiver be required to demonstrate that the existing flexibilities within the TRIPS Agreement are inadequate to address concerns they may have? Can two Members request a waiver of obligations for all WTO Members? Can a waiver request be considered where the product scope is lacking clarity, and the uses/needs of the waiver are very broad and potentially open to differing views? To what extent is there a need for those seeking a waiver to present a factual record of actions being taken by governments, companies and international organizations to provide access to medical goods during the pandemic including to developing and least developed countries? Shouldn’t those seeking a waiver identify the extent of existing licenses by major pharmaceutical companies with them or other WTO Members for the production of vaccines or therapeutics to address COVID-19?”

The supplemental information provided by South Africa identifies various patent pending matters and identifies what it describes as restrictive actions by some companies and some patent litigation by certain companies. As such the communication provides some information of possible relevance in examining the proposed waiver. However, there is little if any information provided on most questions that seem important to an informed discussion of the proposed waiver.

On November 27, Australia, Canada, Chile and Mexico filed a communication entitled “Questions on Intellectual-Property Challenges Experienced by Members in Relation to COVID-19”. IP/C/W/671. While the entire communication is embedded below, paragraphs 3 and 4 are copied below and present a framework for the consideration of the proposed waiver and seek factual answers to a series of questions which would help understand if there are in fact any significant barriers being confronted by WTO Members in addressing the pandemic.

“3. The co-sponsors of this communication remain of the view that these important, challenging, and complex issues merit further reflection and significant consideration, in order to identify any specific and concrete IP-related challenges faced by Members in addressing COVID-19. In addition, we take note that IP rights are one part of a broad discussion informing the availability and accessibility of treatments for COVID-19. Indeed, as the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health emphasizes, the TRIPS Agreement itself is part of the wider national and international effort to address public health problems. With respect to COVID-19, this broader response includes significant investments through procurement mechanisms like the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and the COVAX Facility and Advance Market Commitment, as well as work within the WTO and elsewhere to safeguard and protect global supply chains.

“4. The co-sponsors of this communication are actively committed to a comprehensive, global
approach that leverages the entire multilateral trading system in place to supporting the research,
development, manufacturing, and distribution of safe and effective COVID-19 diagnostics, equipment, therapeutics, and vaccines. The co-sponsors also reaffirm their support for the TRIPS Agreement, including the flexibilities it provides, and for the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health. In this context, we invite consideration of how the existing legal framework under the TRIPS Agreement, including the flexibilities affirmed under the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health, have operated thus far in the context of Members’ efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. We are also committed to fully understanding the nature and scope of any concrete IP barriers experienced by Members related to or arising from the TRIPS Agreement, and such that would constitute impediments to the fight against COVID-19. To that end, and with a view to facilitating a consensual, evidence-based approach, the co-sponsors of this communication therefore respectfully submit the following questions to Members for their consideration and response.”

The communication from Australia, Canada, Chile and Mexico then provides eight questions designed to develop a factual record of challenges faced on procurement of products, local production, compulsory licenses, as well as copyright-related challenges, industrial-designs-related challenges, and challenges from undisclosed information. The questions also include an inquiry as to “what specific legal amendments or actions would the proponents seek to enact for the prevention, containment, and treatment of COVID-19 that are not – or may not be – consistent with the TRIPS Agreement and its flexibilities?”

W671

There is a meeting of the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights scheduled for December 11 at the WTO. It is assumed that the only item on the agenda will be the consideration of the proposed TRIPS waiver submitted by India and South Africa and joined by four other countries. A recommendation should be forwarded to the General Council by December 31. While the proposed waiver may receive support from many WTO Members, it will be opposed by many as well as not justified and undermining the existing WTO TRIPS Agreement and built-in flexibilities. The communication from Australia, Canada, Chile and Mexico provides a possible path forward by seeking to gather factual information that would permit Members to identify what challenges actually exist and what existing tools are available for addressing the existing challenges so that the need for any waiver is limited to what is actually needed instead of being the very broad waiver proposal for all countries regardless of actual problems faced.

World COVID-19 pandemic peaks on November 26 and starts to slowly recede

The most recent surge in COVID-19 cases (up from 3.57 million cases over a fourteen day period in early August to over 5 million for fourteen days on October 22 to over 8 million new cases for fourteen days on November 17), seems to have peaked on November 26 with 8,296,264 new cases over fourteen days and has been slowly receding for the last three days, down to 8,142,629 new cases during the period November 16-29. Total cases since the end of December 2019 now stand at 62,271,031 as of November 29 according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) publication “COVID-19 situation update worldwide, as of 29 November 2020”.

The World Health Organization puts out a publication that tracks cases and deaths on a weekly basis. COVID-19 Weekly Epidemiological Update (data as of 22 November). While it breaks countries and territories into different configuarations that the ECDC, the publication shows new cases in the period November 16-22 declining 6% in Europe and in South East Asia while increasing 11% in the Americas, 5% in the Eastern Mediterranean, 15% in Africa and 9% in the Western Pacific. Because of the large spike in cases in the September – November period in many parts of the world, deaths in the November 16-22 period increased in all regions — up 10% in Europe, 15% in the Americas, 4% in South-East Asia, 10% in the Eastern Mediterranean, 30% in Africa and 1% in the Western Pacific. The latest report is embedded below.

20201124_Weekly_Epi_Update_15

The graphs in the WHO publication show by region the trajectory of new cases and deaths over time. The chart showing aggregate data show a flattening of total new cases in the last weeks of November while the number of deaths globally are sharply increasing.

The WHO Africa region peaked in the summer and has declined until the last few weeks when there has been some increase in both cases and deaths.

The Americas saw a peak in both new cases and deaths in the July period with some declines in new cases until the second half of September when the current surge started and accelerated in November. Deaths declined until early October before starting to grow again.

The Eastern Mediterranean peaked in May-June for both cases and deaths, declined through August/September and have surged to new heights with continued upward trajectory as of November 22.

The WTO European Region had an early surge of cases and deaths in the March-April period. Deaths receded sharply through August. While new cases have increased since summer, there was a massive increase in the September – end of October period in new cases and rising deaths through November.

The WHO South-East Asia region saw a huge increase in cases and deaths in the May-August period, peaking in early September and declining since then. Much of the data for the region reflect activity in India.

The Western Pacific Region has had several peaks in terms of deaths and in new cases, though the numbers are the lowest of any WHO region. The latest peak in new cases was in early August with some increase in the October-November period. Deaths last peaked in early September and have declined through November.

The United States

Turning back to the ECDC data, the United States continues to have more confirmed cases (13,246,651) than any other nation and more confirmed deaths from COVID-19 (266,063) than any other nation. The United States is also still experiencing a surge in new cases and rising deaths. October 31 was the first day that ECDC data show the U.S. recording 100,000 new cases in a single day. Since November 5, the U.S. has had more than 100,000 new cases every day up to November 29. It is the only country to record one million new cases in a week and the only country to record two million new cases in fourteen days. For the last fourteen days, the U.S. recorded 2,341,760 new cases. The U.S., which accounts for 4.3% of the global population, accounts for 21.27% of all COVID-19 cases that have been reported since December 2019 and accounted for 28.76% of new cases in the last two weeks. The rate of increase remains high for the United States — up 31.67% from the 1,778,530 new cases in the two weeks ending November 15. There are concerns that the number of new cases will continue to increase into the new year based on the high rate of infections in many parts of the country, major potential spreading events around holidays in November (Thanksgiving) and December, and limited compliance with basic requirements for limiting the spread of the virus.

The number of deaths from COVID-19 that the U.S. accounts for has declined from roughly 20% to 18.30% as of November 29. In the last two week, while the U.S. has the largest number of deaths in the two weeks, the percent of total deaths accounted for by the U.S. in the November 16-29 period was 14.65%. However, many cities, communities and even states are at or nearing the limits of the health care capacity with hospitalizations now about 90,000, limits on health care professionals with the surging cases and some challenges on personal protective equipment. Thus, models used by the government projects a continued rise in the number of deaths in the coming months.

While the first vaccine could receive emergency approval for distribution in the U.S. as early as December 10, and the U.S. could have two or three vaccines in distribution in early 2021, the United States will unfortunately likely be a major part of the continued high rate of infections and deaths well into 2021.

Europe

While Europe had faced early challenges in a number of western European countries in February-April and very high death rates in a number of countries, the second wave of cases following the relaxation of restrictions in time for summer vacations accounted for the vast majority of the incrase in new cases during the October and early November time period. In earlier posts, I showed that Europe and the U.S. accounted for nearly all of the increase from 5 million new cases in the two weeks ending October 22 to the more than 8 million new cases in the two weeks ending November 17. See November 17, 2020, New COVID-19 cases over a fourteen day period continue to soar past eight million, up from five million on October 22, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/17/new-covid-19-cases-over-a-fourteen-day-period-continue-to-soar-past-eight-million-up-from-five-million-on-october-22/

While some of the major countries, including France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and others have seen significant reductions in the number of new cases in recent weeks from the extraordinary figures recorded in late October, early November, numbers remain very high for a number of countries including Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania and Luxembourg — all of whom had new cases/100,000 population in the last fourteen days that were higher than the United States.

Because deaths lag new cases by a number of weeks, it is perhaps less surprising that much of Europe had deaths/100,000 population in the last fourteen days that were higher than the United States, most at rates that were two-three times the U.S. rate. The rate for the world in total was 1.82 deaths per 100,000 population for the November 16-29 period. The U.S. was 3.38 times the global average at 6.22 deaths per 100,000 population in that two week period. The following 25 European countries exceeded the U.S. rate: France (11.76 deaths/100,000 population); Italy (16.04); Spain (8.31); United Kingdom (9.40); Armenia (12.81); Austria (13.47); Belgium (18.84); Moldova (6.50); Poland (16.65); Portugal (10.30); Romania (11.50); Serbia (7.11); Switzerland (14.98); Bulgaria (23.69); Croatia (15.92); Czechia (18.74); Greece (11.08); Hungary (16.12); Lithuania (8.12); Luxembourg (13.19); Malta (6.79); Slovenia (19.85); Bosnia and Herzegovina (20.75); Georgia (13.19); and North Macedonia (20.12).

With new restrictions in recent weeks bringing new cases down in a number of European countries, death rates should start to decline as well in the coming weeks. Challenges in terms of superspreader events in Europe include holiday travel and events and winter holidays and sports. Germany has proposed placing restrictions on the ski season to try to minimize increased cases from a sport popular across much of Europe. See DW, 26 November 2020, Coronavirus: Germany seeks EU-wide ban on ski trips, https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-germany-seeks-eu-wide-ban-on-ski-trips/a-55732273.

The EU has contracts with at least six pharmaceutical companies or groups for vaccines if approved. The EU and United Kingdom will start to see vaccine dosages within weeks assuming approval in their jurisdictions.

Other countries

While much of the rest of the world has not seen great increases in the number of cases that is not true for all countries. For example, Iran which had 136,753 new cases in the November 2-15 period showed 186,274 new cases in the November 16-29 period (+36.21%). Jordan, which has a total number of cases of 210,709 since the end of December has recorded 65.54% of that total in the last four weeks (68,698 new cases during November 2-15; 69,404 new cases during November 16-29). Similarly, Morocco which has a total of 349,688 cases since December 2019 has more than 37% recorded in the last four weeks (69,127 during November 2-15; 61,477 during November 16-29).

In the Americas the following countries in addition to the United States have two week totals to November 29 greater than 100,000 new cases: Argentina (108,531); Brazil (441,313); Colombia (108,609). The following countries besides the United States have more than one million cases since late December 2019: Argentina (1,413,362); Brazil (6,290,272); Colombia (1,299,613), Mexico (1,100,683). Eleven other countries have more than 100,000 cases (with Peru having 960,368). Other than the U.S., countries are facing different trend lines, many down, some showing increases (e.g., Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, Paraguay).

In Asia, while India continues to see declines in the number of new cases, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Palestine, South Korea, showed increased in the most recent two weeks, some quite large. This is in addition to Iran reviewed previously.

In Africa, South Africa has the most cases and saw an increase from 23,730 new cases during November 2-15 to 35,967 during November 16-29. Morocco was reviewed above. Most other major countries in Africa saw declines in recent weeks.

Conclusion

The world in the first eleven months of 2020 has struggled to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control with several major surge periods. The global number of new cases seems to have plateaued over the last week or so at extraordinarily high levels and the death rates has been climbing after a long period where deaths appeared to be declining. It is likely that the death rate will continue to increase for the rest of 2020.

After a period during the summer and early fall where restrictions in a number of countries were being relaxed, many countries in the norther hemisphere are reimposing various restrictions in an effort to dampen the spread of the coronavirus. While trade has significantly rebounded from the sharp decline in the second quarter of 2020, services trade remains more than 30% off of 2019 levels driven by the complete collapse of international travel and tourism. Many WTO members have put forward communications on actions that could be considered to speed economic recovery. The most recent was the Ottawa Group’s communication about a possible Trade and Health Initiative. See November 27, 2020, The Ottawa Group’s November 23 communication and draft elements of a trade and health initiative, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/27/the-ottawa-groups-november-23-communication-and-draft-elements-of-a-trade-and-health-initiative/.

The WTO TRIPS Council has a request for a waiver from most TRIPS obligations for all WTO Members on medical goods and medicines relevant to COVID-19 on which a recommendation is supposed to be forwarded to the General Council by the end of 2020 though it is opposed by a number of major Members with pharmaceutical industries. See November 2, 2020, India and South Africa seek waiver from WTO intellectual property obligations to add COVID-19 – issues presented, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/02/india-and-south-africa-seek-waiver-from-wto-intellectual-property-obligations-to-address-covid-19-issues-presented/.

With vaccines very close to approval in major markets like the United States and the European Union, there will be increased focus on efforts to ensure availability of vaccines and therapeutics and diagnostics globally on equitable and affordable terms. GAVI, CEPI and the WHO have been leading this initiative with the support of many governments and private sector players. Pharmaceutical companies also have global distribution plans being pursued in addition to the above efforts.

So there hopefully is light at the end of the tunnel that the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed on the world. But vaccines without vaccinations won’t solve the pandemic’s grip. So communication and outreach globally will be critical to seeing that available vaccines are properly used. And all peoples need to be able to access the vaccines, some of which will be less available simply because of the infrastructure needs to handle the vaccines.

Trade policy options to minimize trade restrictions coupled with global cooperation and coordination should result in the world being able to rebuild in 2021 and beyond as more and more of the world is vaccinated.

Multilateral efforts to help the poorest countries deal with debt, make available trade finance and other actions continue to be a pressing need. Better plans and preparation for pandemics of the future are clearly needed. Reports suggest that many of the poorest countries have experienced loss of a decade or more of economic advancement during the pandemic. Building back greener and in a sustainable manner is critical for all.

The efforts of developed country governments and others to provide the stimulus domestically to reduce the downward spiral of the individual national economies and the global economy has been critical to limiting the damage at home and abroad. But the assumption of large amounts of debt will also pose significant challenges moving forward because of the greatly heightened national debt/GDP ratios that have developed and may restrict options for individual governments moving forward.

What is certain is that 2020 will be remembered as a year in which a virus inflicted enormous damage to the global health and to the global economy. Collectively, the level of spread has been far greater than should have been possible. Many nations were not prepared. Some, like the United States, exacerbated the problems through a lack of national government planning and messaging. Others like many in Europe, having done a good job of controlling the spread in the early months, made major mistakes as they opened up for summer vacations and didn’t deal with the problems that resulted from the reopening and experienced breathtaking surges which roughly doubled the global daily rate of new cases in five-six weeks and have led to the reimposition of a series of restrictions to try to tame the pandemic a second time. We collectively are better than the results achieved to date. The number of deaths in advanced countries is simply disgraceful.

2021 offers the opportunity for the world to come together and put COVID-19 behind us. Whether we will come to the end of 2021 and feel that this global nightmare is behind us and that there are national and global game plans to rebuild in a greener and more sustainable manner with greater opportunities for all is the question. Hopefully, the answer will be yes.

WTO initiatives on trade and the environment — likely to receive a warm welcome under a Biden Administration

The challenges facing the world from climate change are staggering and getting worse. While the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, a Biden Administration will have the U.S. rejoin and work with other nations to find solutions to the pressing problems.

Today in Geneva, two initiatives were announced by groups of WTO Members. One addresses trade and environmental sustainability and was presented in a communication from 49 Members. Communication on Trade and Environmental Sustainability, WT/CTE/W/249 (17 November 2020). Neither the U.S., China, India, Brazil nor South Africa are on the communication though most developed countries and other Members are initial sponsors. The communication is embedded below.

W249

The second initiative was the launch of an informal dialogue on plastics pollution and environmentally sustainable plastics trade. Seven Members are launching the informal dialogue. All Members are welcome to participate. The seven Members involved in the launch are Australia, Barbados, Canada, China, Fiji, Jamaica and Morocco. Only Australia, Canada and Fiji are part of both initiatives. The press release from the Secretariat on today’s initiatives included the following discussion of the plastics initiative.

“The dialogue is borne out of the recognition of the need for coordinated action to address the rising environmental, health and economic cost of plastics pollution and the importance of the trade dimension as a solution.

“Proponents aim to circulate their communication soon. * * *

“Ambassador Xiangchen Zhang of China said at the online event that possible subjects for discussion include improving transparency, monitoring trade trends, promoting best practices, strengthening policy coherence, identifying the scope for collective approaches, assessing capacity and technical assistance needs, and cooperating with other international processes and efforts. Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan of Fiji said they hope this informal dialogue will encourage discussion and exploratory work on how the WTO can contribute to efforts to reduce plastics pollution and transition to a circular, more environmentally sustainable plastics trade.”

Deputy Director-General Alan Wm Wolff spoke at today’s event and identified a range of initiatives that have been looked at by the Committee on Trade and Environment, or that could be, that could help move forward both initiatives including resuming talks at eliminating tariffs and non-tariff barriers on environmental goods and services, reforming subsidies on fossil fuels, promoting a global circular economy, addressing the carbon content of traded products and other actions.

The press release and DDG Wolff’s remarks are embedded below.

WTO-_-2020-News-items-New-initiatives-launched-to-intensify-WTO-work-on-trade-and-the-environment

WTO-_-2020-News-items-Speech-DDG-Alan-Wolff-DDG-Wolff-remarks-on-the-Structured-Discussions-on-Trade-and-Environmental-Sustainability

Likely U.S. engagement in a Biden Administration

Because addressing the challenges from climate change are a core priority for the incoming Biden Administration, I would expect that once the new trade team is in place, the U.S. will become involved in both of the initiatives and other activities at the WTO on the importance of finding rules and solutions to pressing trade and environment issues.

The Biden team almost certainly supports most if not all of the items identified in paragraph 1 of the Communication (WT/CTE/W/249), including the importance of multilateral environmental agreements, that there is an urgent need for action on climate change, that trade and environmental objectives and policies should be mutually supportive, that trade and trade policy need to support efforts to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, among others. Similarly, the Biden Administration will presumably strongly support the four areas of activity identified in paragraph 2 of the Communication:

“2. Therefore, express our intention to collaborate, prioritize and advance discussions on trade and environmental sustainability, including by:

“intensifying our work to share experiences and best practices; promote transparency, dialogue and information sharing along the full value chain of products and materials;

“strengthening coherence at the national and international level with a view to identifying areas of common interest and for future work within the WTO, in order for WTO to address more effectively sustainable development issues;

“working in cooperation with relevant international organizations and relevant actors, including the private sector, to identify and support technical assistance and capacity building needs of Members, and in particular least-developed countries (LDCs).

“working on possible actions and deliverables of environmental sustainability in the various areas of the WTO.”

Similarly, I would expect the Biden Administration to have an active interest in working with industry and other governments to address the challenges of plastics pollution, although U.S. interests are likely to be more action oriented than the items teed up by China at today’s announcement.

Conclusion

For years, many Members have fought focusing energies at the WTO on issues involving trade and the environment. With the climate change crisis and consequences being felt around the world, it appears that many or most WTO Members are appreciating the need for the WTO to play its role in addressing sustainable development and the climate change challenge.

With a new U.S. Administration, the U.S. should be a very active participant in moving the WTO and its Members forward.

New COVID-19 cases over a fourteen day period continue to soar past eight million, up from five million on October 22

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to see an upward spiral in terms of the number of new infections although there has been a recent slowdown in new cases in Europe. Europe and the United States continue to constitute the bulk of the increase over the last 26 days as the following graph taken from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s COVID-19 situation update world wide, as of 17 November 2020 shows.

Distribution of COVID-19 cases worldwide, as of 17 November 2020

Distribution of COVID-19 cases worldwide, as of 17 November 2020


More specifically, in the last twenty-six days, the number of new COVID-19 cases globally over the last fourteen days has shot from five million to over eight million — a near sixty percent increase in a little over three and a half weeks. The total new cases identified since late December 2019 globally are now 55.15 million as of November 17.

On October 22, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) recorded the first day where the number of new COVID-19 cases over a fourteen day period globally surpassed five million (5,042,415). In just eight days, on October 30, the ECDC reports the fourteen day total shooting past six million new cases (6,093,987), an increase of 1,051,572 or 20.85% in eight days. The report for November 7 shows the total new cases in the last fourteen days crossing the seven million mark — 7,044,267 — or 15.59% over October 30 and 39.70% over October 22. And today, November 17, the ECDC report shows new cases in the last fourteen days as passing eight million (8,031,073) — 14.01% above November 7, 31.79% above October 30 and 59.27% above October 22. As reviewed in three prior posts (October 22 and October 30), the U.S. and Europe were major factors in hitting five million, six million and seven million daily cases and today’s data show them to continue to be the major causes of the continued rapid escalation in global cases. See October 22, 2020, COVID-19 new cases over last 14 days pass 5,000,000 for first time on October 22, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/10/22/covid-19-new-cases-over-last-14-days-pass-5000000-for-first-time-on-october-22/; October 30, 2020,  In last eight days, the number of global new COVID-19 cases over past fourteen days has grown from five to six million, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/10/30/in-last-eight-days-the-number-of-global-new-covid-19-cases-over-past-fourteen-days-has-grown-from-five-to-six-million/; November 7, 2020:  New COVID-19 cases over a fourteen day period continue to soar from five million on October 22 to six million on October 30 to seven million on November 7, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/07/new-covid-19-cases-over-a-fourteen-day-period-continue-to-soar-from-five-million-on-october-22-to-six-million-on-october-30-to-seven-million-on-november-7/

The table below shows the fourteen day totals for selected countries as of October 22, October 30, November 7 and November 17, and the change in new cases from October 22 – November 17. These twenty countries show an increase in the twenty-six days from October 22 – November 17 of 2,772,211 additional new cases while the increase from all countries was 2,988,658. So the 20 countries account for 92.76% of the total growth. In the prior periods (October 30 and November 7), the 20 countries had accounted for more than 100% of the increase in new cases. The 20 countries accounted for 2,558,802 new cases for the fourteen days ending October 22 or 50.75% of the global total at that time. For the fourteen days ending October 30, the 20 countries accounted for 3,584,674 new cases or 58.82% of the global total. For the fourteen days ending November 7, the 20 countries accounted for 4,568,491 new cases or 64.85% of the global total. And for the fourteen days ending November 17, the 20 countries accounted for 5,331,013 new cases or 66.38% of new cases. The table below shows that eight European countries — France, Spain, Belgium, Czechia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Slovakia and Slovenia — showed significant new case reductions in the November 17 period compared to the November 7 period.

Country10-22-202010-30-202011-7-202011-17-2020Change
United States786,488966,2691,245,8761,914,2411,127,753
France303,912473,085620,778524,800220,888
United Kingdom244,954291,718315,486336,817 91,863
Spain169,394238,709282,700256,167 86,773
Italy115,708234,993377,812474,293358,585
Russia198,716227,530252,794315,975117,259
Belgium100,119171,522152,663 72,643 -27,476
Poland95,260169,302265,447338,308243,048
Czechia113,555161,058165,174114,627 1,072
Germany81,905151,137224,483255,367173,462
Netherlands103,024126,543125,163 84,442 -18,582
Ukraine76,48989,178109,792143,495 67,006
Switzerland35,26173,418107,837 93,395 58,134
Romania48,53260,55086,030114,508 65,976
Hungary18,16628,38848,845 65,890 47,724
Austria19,38735,43661,823 93,528 74,141
Bulgaria10,59220,64335,665 45,274 34,682
Slovakia18,91327,50333,177 25,447 6,534
Slovenia8,85920,02123,345 19,338 10,479
Sweden9,56817,67133,601 42,458 32,890
Total2,558,8023,584,6744,568,4915,331,0132,772,211

While the United States has the largest absolute increase in the last twenty-five days for a single country and accounted for 40.68% of the increase recorded by the twenty countries for the October 22-November 17 period, the U.S. accounted for 87.65% of the increase of the twenty countries for the November 7-November 17 period. While Europe has been the largest part of the increase in October and November, the rate of increase has slowed or declined for many European countries in the last fourteen days.

Europe led the U.S. in the dramatic increase in new cases in October and in the reintroduction of restrictions in many countries to attempt to bring the coronavirus back under control. Actions in Europe appear to be working at least in a large number of countries as the number of new cases is declining in some countries as can be seen in the table above. The United States is continuing with huge increases in new cases, in hospitalizations and is seeing a growing number of deaths. Many U.S. states are putting in place at least some restrictions to try to slow the growth of new cases and reduce the strain on the health care system. The next week or two will help understand whether the actions being taken in the U.S. are sufficient to reduce the growth in new cases.

Other parts of the world are not experiencing a second wave to the same extent as Europe or the United States, although much of the Americas remain at very high levels of new cases. Some major countries who have been seriously hit in recent months are seeing substantial reductions in new cases. India is one example — on October 22, the last 14 days showed 871,291 new cases; on October 30, for the last 14 days new cases were down to 718,383; on November 7 were down to 647,398 for the 14 days ; and for the fourteen days ending on November 1, India’s new cases were down to 606,667.

The EU and the US face problems on additional aid packages

The EU has at least a temporary crisis as Hungary and Poland have blocked adoption of the aid package that had been agreed to. See, e.g., Euronews, 16 November 2020, Hungary and Poland block EU’s COVID-19 recovery package over new rule of law drive, https://www.euronews.com/2020/11/16/hungary-and-poland-threaten-coronavirus-recovery-package.

The U.S. Congress and Administration have been unable to agree to additional stimulus funds to help the U.S. economy and citizens deal with the continued COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. has more than 22 million Americans still out of work and with government assistance having terminated or to terminate shortly. Aid for small businesses and for sectors particularly hard hit by the pandemic is desperately needed as is funding for state and local governments and much more. While President Trump has urged Congress to pass an additional stimulus package, it is unlikely that action will be taken before the next Congress convenes and the new Administration is sworn in on January 20.

Progress on vaccine development

Two vaccines have completed phase 3 testing — one from Pfizer/BioNTech and one from Moderna — and information from the companies suggests efficacy rates of 90-94.5%. Thus, it is possible that these two vaccines will be approved for use in the coming weeks and will see large scale availability in the first half of 2021. Many other vaccines are in various phases of testing. So 2021 will hopefully see the roll out of various vaccines with significant availability around the world due to efforts of the companies and the efforts of the WHO/GAVI/CEPI to ensure availability to developing and least developed countries as well.

Conclusion

The top priority for many countries around the world remains getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control. The costs in terms of human life and serious health problems are enormous. So too the costs to the global economy from taking the steps necessary to address the pandemic are enormous.

How to address the pandemic and how to work internationally to secure a return to normalcy and a return to sustainable economic growth are the challenges for all governments and international organizations.

The fact that the number of new cases is continuing to surge globally ten and a half months after the start of global surveillance is obviously troubling and delays the return to normalcy. While some individual countries have gained control of the pandemic and others are making significant strides to reduce the number of new cases, “no one is safe until all are safe”. We have a long road to travel, and the western developed world is currently the major hot spot, struggling with the current extraordinary surge, although there are positive signs in Europe that at least many countries are slowing the spread after a very challenging September and October. We still are not in sight of a global peak although the rate of growth is slowing for the world as a whole though not for countries like the United States.

There is obviously some light at the end of the tunnel as vaccines and therapeutics get closer to public release. With more than 55 million infections recorded to date around the world and with more than 1.3 million deaths globally, the pressing question is how much worse will the situation become before the world gets back to normal with the pandemic controlled. The world is in for a challenging time til at least next summer and more realistically to the end of 2021 and the start of 2022.

New COVID-19 cases over a fourteen day period continue to soar from five million on October 22 to six million on October 30 to seven million on November 7

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to spiral out of control with the vast majority of the new cases in Europe and the United States as the following graph taken from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s COVID-19 situation update world wide, as of 7 November 2020 shows.

Distribution of COVID-19 cases worldwide, as of 7 November 2020

Distribution of COVID-19 cases worldwide, as of 7 November 2020

More specifically, in the last sixteen days, the number of new COVID-19 cases globally over the last fourteen days has shot from five million to over seven million — a near forty percent increase in a little over two weeks. The total new cases identified since late December 2019 globally are just under 50 million (49.37 million) as of November 7.

On October 22, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) recorded the first day where the number of new COVID-19 cases over a fourteen day period globally surpassed five million (5,042,415). In just eight days, on October 30, the ECDC reports the fourteen day total shooting past six million new cases (6,093,987), an increase of 1,051,572 or 20.85% in eight days. Today’s report (November 7) shows the total new cases in the last fourteen days crossing the seven million mark — 7,044,267 — or 15.59% over October 30 and 39.70% over October 22. As reviewed in two prior posts (October 22 and October 30), the U.S. and Europe were major factors in hitting five million and six daily cases and today’s data show them to continue to be the major causes of the continued rapid escalation in global cases. See October 22, 2020, COVID-19 new cases over last 14 days pass 5,000,000 for first time on October 22, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/10/22/covid-19-new-cases-over-last-14-days-pass-5000000-for-first-time-on-october-22/; October 30, 2020,  In last eight days, the number of global new COVID-19 cases over past fourteen days has grown from five to six million, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/10/30/in-last-eight-days-the-number-of-global-new-covid-19-cases-over-past-fourteen-days-has-grown-from-five-to-six-million/.

The table below shows the fourteen day totals for selected countries as of October 22, October 30 and November 7 and the change in new cases from October 22 – November 7. These twenty countries show an increase in sixteen days of 2,009,689 new cases over the fourteen day periods examined or more than the global total increase of 2,001,852 new cases over the same sixteen days The 20 countries accounted for 2,558,802 new cases for the fourteen days ending October 22 or 50.75% of the global total at that time. For the fourteen days ending October 30, the 20 countries accounted for 3,584,674 new cases or 58.82% of the global total. Finally, for the fourteen days ending November 7, the 20 countries accounted for 4,568,491 new cases or 64.85% of the global total.

Country10-22-202010-30-202011-7-2020Change
United States786,488966,2691,245,876459,388
France303,912473,085620,778316,866
United Kingdom244,954291,718315,48670,532
Spain169,394238,709282,700113,306
Italy115,708234,993377,812262,104
Russia198,716227,530252,79454,078
Belgium100,119171,522152,66352,544
Poland95,260169,302265,447170,187
Czechia113,555161,058165,17451,619
Germany81,905151,137224,483142,578
Netherlands103,024126,543125,16322,139
Ukraine76,48989,178109,79233,303
Switzerland35,26173,418107,83772,576
Romania48,53260,55086,03037,498
Hungary18,16628,38848,84530,679
Austria19,38735,43661,82342,436
Bulgaria10,59220,64335,66525,073
Slovakia18,91327,50333,17714,264
Slovenia8,85920,02123,34514,486
Sweden9,56817,67133,60124,033
Total2,558,8023,584,6744,568,4912,009,689

While the United States has the largest absolute increase in the last eight days for a single country, the vast majority of the increase flows from countries within the European Union. With the exception of the United States, the rest of the countries in the chart are from Europe, most from the EU.

It is little wonder, then, that the EU, the UK and Switzerland, with dramatic growth in the number of new cases, are imposing renewed restrictions at least in many countries and facing backlash from citizens suffering COVID-19 exhaustion. See, e.g., Politico, November 1, 2020, Europe is living a coronavirus flashback plus a backlash, https://www.politico.eu/article/europe-is-living-a-coronavirus-flashback-plus-a-backlash/. While health care is handled by the individual countries within the the EU, the EU has been advocating better coordination and maintaining trade flows within the Community as countries come to grips with the current wave. See, e.g., Politico, October 30, 2020, EU leaders link arms for long fight against virus, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-leaders-link-arms-for-long-fight-against-virus/.

In the United States, the number of new cases is spiking again, with new cases now more than 100,000/day in recent days and the fourteen day total new cases of 1,245,876 is more than 20% higher than was recorded on November 1 — the first day where a fourteen day total of new cases in teh U.S. topped one million. See November 1, 2020, United States becomes second country to have more than 1,000,000 new COVID-19 cases in fourteen days, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/01/united-states-becomes-second-country-to-have-more-than-1000000-new-covid-19-cases-in-fourteen-days/. With most attention in the U.S. focused on the election results, the COVID-19 situation is receiving relatively limited press attention and no change in federal government response.

Other parts of the world are not experiencing a second wave to the same extent, although much of the Americas remain at very high levels of new cases. Some major countries who have been seriously hit in recent months are seeing substantial reductions in new cases. India is the leading example — on October 22, the last 14 days showed 871,291 new cases; on October 30, for the last 14 days new cases were down to 718,383, and were down to 647,398 for the 14 days ending on November 7.

Conclusion

The top priority for many countries around the world is getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control. The costs in terms of human life and serious health problems are enormous. So too the costs to the global economy from taking the steps necessary to address the pandemic are enormous. For example, the European Union recently reduced its projected economic growth in 2021 because of the second wave of COVID-19 cases. See Politico, November 5, 2020, EU cuts economic forecast due to coronavirus wave, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-cuts-economic-forecast-due-to-coronavirus-wave/ (2021 forecast cut from 6.1% growth to 4.2% growth).

How to address the pandemic and how to work internationally to secure a return to normalcy and a return to sustainable economic growth are the challenges for all governments and international organizations, including the WTO, WHO, IMF, World Bank and many others. Recent IMF regional economic outlooks show varied projections for economic growth for different parts of the world and major challenges for areas like Sub-Saharan Africa. See, e.g., IMF Press Release, October 22, 2020, Regional Economic Outlook, Sub-Saharan Africa, a difficult road to recovery, https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/10/21/pr20319-sub-saharan-africa-a-difficult-road-to-recovery.

The fact that the number of new cases is continuing to surge globally ten months after the start of global surveillance is obviously troubling and delays the return to normalcy. While some individual countries have gained control of the pandemic and others are making significant strides to reduce the number of new cases, “no one is safe until all are safe”. We have a long road to travel, and the western developed world is currently the major hot spot, struggling with the current extraordinary surge. We still are not in sight of a global peak and the rest of 2020 is likely to continue to stress global capabilities.

WTO reports a 30% decline in commercial services trade in 2nd quarter of 2020 — travel challenges through September will continue to put downward pressure on commercial services trade

A press release from the WTO on October 23, 2020 was headlined “Services trade drops 30% in Q2 as COVID-19 ravages international travel.” https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/serv_22oct20_e.htm. One of the charts in the press release shows travel down 81% in the second quarter of 2020, with transport down 31% and all other commercial services down 9%. Within other services, construction exports were down 24%; manufacturing and repair services exports were down 22%; telecommunications services exports were down 8%; insurance services exports were down 3%; financial services exports were down 1%; and computer services exports up 4%, with remaining categories of services exports down 9-14%.

The press release contained a link to monthly trade trends through August which looked at both imports and exports of merchandise and of commercial services. See WTO statistics, latest trends, https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/latest_trends_e.htm. Commercial services were presented at an aggregate level and showed percent change for months on a year-on-year basis. For the European Union commercial services exports outside of the EU, the rate of decline from 2019 data declined 29% in May 2020, 22% in June, 21% in July and 20% in August. For the United States, exports of commercial services declined by 31% in May, 30% in June, 29% in July and 29% in August. China’s exports of commercial services went from a decline of 6% in May to a decline of 5% in June, and a !% growth in July and a 6% growth in August. The United Kingdom showed a decline of 27% in commercial exports in May, an 11% decline in June, a 9% decline in July and a 1% increase in August. India showed declines in each of the four months from May-August of 10%, 8%, 11% and 10%. Similarly, Japan showed declines each month in the four months from 24% in May, 23% in June, 35% in July and 36% in August. Korea was the last country shown and had declines each month of 30%, 24%, 27% and 26%.

Travel continues to be the major driver of the decline in commercial services into the third quarter, with the UNWTO reporting in its World Tourism Barometer (Volume 18, Issue 6, October 2020) that international arrivals declined 81% in July and 79% in August compared to year earlier figures. For the first eight months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, international arrivals are down 70.1%, with Asia and the Pacific down 78.8%, Europe down 67.7%, the Americas down 64.8%, Africa down 69.% nd the Middle East down 68.7. UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, Volume 18, Issue 6, October 2020, https://www.e-unwto.org/doi/epdf/10.18111/wtobarometereng.2020.18.1.6.

While travel restrictions through August had been being reduced in a number of countries, the huge increase in Europe of new COVID-19 cases in October and early November has resulted in increased restrictions in a number of European countries and will likely mean extended challenges for international travel to and from Europe, as well as cut backs in domestic travel for the remainder of 2020.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) puts out various publications including an Air Passenger Market Analysis. The September issue shows that revenue passenger kilometers (RPKs) were down 88.8% in September 2020 for international air travel, bringing the January-September decline to 72.3%. Domestic air travel by contrast was down, but “just” 43.3% in September (51.2% for January – September). Thus, the total market (international and domestic) was down 72.8% in September and 64.7% for the first nine months of 2020. IATA, Air Passenger Market Analysis, The recovery in passenger travel slows amid elevated risks, September 2020, https://www.iata.org/en/iata-repository/publications/economic-reports/air-passenger-monthly-analysis—september-2020/.

While the travel sector encompasses far more than air travel, the challenges facing the airline industry are similar to challenges faced by other parts of the sector, although other parts of the sector are often far more fragmented (restaurants, bars, hotels, entertainment venues) and without the resources to survive the prolonged depression in demand due to the pandemic.

IATA provided a powerpoint analysis by their Chief Economist, Brian Pearce, on the 6th of October 2020, entitled “COVID-19, Outlook for airlines’ cash burn,” https://www.iata.org/en/iata-repository/publications/economic-reports/outlook-for-airlines-cash-burn/. The powerpoint reviews the steep reduction in stock prices for airlines compared to other stocks, outlines the extraordinary level of aid the industry has received from governments ($160 billion) and suppliers ($20 billion), shows the timing when government support is ending, graphs the slow recovery in passenger revenues, and explores the challenge for the airlines to downsize costs sufficiently to deal with the drastic contraction in revenues, and shows an industry cash burn (expenditures exceeding revenues) of $51 billion in the 2nd quarter of 2020 and a projected further cash burn of $77 billion in the second half of 2021. The presentation also shows that many airlines can’t sustain for long the cash burn and ends on the sobering note that airlines are not expected to turn cash positive until 2022.

Press reports show challenges for airlines in many parts of the world. See, e.g., South China Morning Post (Bloomberg article), November 3, 2020, Asia airlines seen staving off pandemic ruin for now as troubles head West, https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/3108066/asia-airlines-seen-staving-pandemic-ruin-now-financial-troubles-head-west; BBC, November 3, 2020, Covid threatens to ground India’s aviation industry, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-54729074.

The U.S. has seen tens of thousands of airline employees furloughed or dismissed since October 1st as government support came to an end in September, and Congress and the Administration have not been able to agree on a further package of supports for the industry or the nation more broadly as the pandemic continues to grow in size in the U.S. The surge in new cases in the United States is also resulting in various states imposing restrictions on bars and restaurants, and the hotel and entertainment industries continue to be severely affected by declines in demand.

Similarly, much of Europe has been reimposing at least some restrictions that affect the travel sector in an effort to regain control over the pandemic.

All of the above is simply to point out that the decline in commercial services trade reported by the WTO last month for the second quarter of 2020 is likely to continue through the remainder of 2020, led by the devastating contraction of the travel sector.

India and South Africa Seek Waiver from WTO Intellectual Property Obligations to Address COVID-19 — Issues Presented

India and South Africa submitted a communication to the WTO Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights entitled “Waiver from Certain Provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for the Prevention,
Containment and Treatment of COVID-19.” IP/C/W/699 (October 2, 2020). The document and correction are embedded below.

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The waiver request was made part of the agenda of the Council for TRIPS agenda for its meeting on October 15-16. The WTO Secretariat provided a short press release on the TRIPS Council meeting. The discussion on the waiver proposal is quoted below.

“Some 40 members engaged in a substantive discussion on a proposal submitted by India and South Africa for a temporary waiver of certain TRIPS obligations they said would facilitate an appropriate response to COVID-19. The proposal suggests a waiver for all WTO members on the implementation, application and enforcement of certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to the “prevention, containment or treatment” of COVID-19. The proponents argued this would avoid barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products including vaccines and
medicines or to scaling-up of research, development, manufacturing and supply of essential medical products.

“The waiver would cover obligations in four sections of Part II of the TRIPS Agreement (https://www.wto.org/english/docs_e/legal_e/27-trips_04_e.htm) — Section 1 on copyright and related rights, Section 4 on industrial designs, Section 5 on patents and Section 7 on the protection of undisclosed information. It would last for a specific number of years, as agreed by the General Council, and until widespread vaccination is in place globally and the majority of the world’s population is immune. Members would review the waiver annually until its termination.

“According to the proponents, an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic requires rapid access to affordable medical products such as diagnostic kits, medical masks, other personal protective equipment and ventilators as well as vaccines and medicines. The outbreak has led to a swift increase in global demand, with many countries facing shortages, constraining the ability to effectively respond to the outbreak. As new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19 are developed, there were significant concerns about how these will be made available
promptly in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices to meet global demand.

“The proponents argued that many countries — especially developing countries — may face institutional and legal difficulties when using TRIPS flexibilities, including the special compulsory licensing mechanism provided for in Article 31bis (https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/publications_e/ai17_e/trips_art31_bis_oth.pdf), which they saw as a cumbersome process for the import and export of pharmaceutical products. Now was the time for the WTO as an organization to rise up to the collective call for defeating the pandemic. The WTO would not succeed in its efforts to rebuild the COVID-19 affected economies unless it acts now to first save those lives that are going to build these economies. It is time for members to take collective responsibility and put people’s lives before anything else, they concluded.

“While a number of developing and least developed country members welcomed the proposal as a contribution to the discussion, many were still studying it in their capitals and asked for clarification on certain points, particularly regarding its practical implementation and the possible economic and legal impact of the waiver at national level. A number of developing and developed country members opposed the waiver proposal, noting that there is no indication that intellectual property rights (IPRs) have been a genuine barrier to accessing COVID-19 related medicines and technologies.

“While acknowledging that the sustained and continued supply of such medicines and technologies is a difficult task, they observed that non-efficient and underfunded health care and procurement systems, spiking demand and lack of manufacturing capacity are much more likely to impede access to these materials. In the view of these members, solutions can be legitimately sought within the existing IP system as the TRIPS Agreement provides enough tools and sufficient policy space for members to take measures to protect public health. The suspension of IPRs,
even for a limited period of time, was not only unnecessary but it would also undermine the collaborative efforts to fight the pandemic that are already under way.

“Given this range of positions, the Council chair, Ambassador Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter of South Africa, said that the item would remain suspended as members continue to consider the proposal. Requests for waivers concerning WTO agreements must be submitted initially to the relevant council for consideration. After 90 days, the TRIPS Council has to submit a report to the Ministerial Conference. Given that the proposal was submitted on 2 October, the 90-day time-period expires on 31 December 2020. The TRIPS Council meeting will be reconvened on the item of the waiver proposal as appropriate before that date, the chair said.”

WTO, 20 October 2020, Members discuss intellectual property response to the COVID-19 pandemic, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/trip_20oct20_e.htm.

Waiver provisions in the WTO

Article IX:3 and 4 of the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trde Organization deal with waivers from obligations WTO Members have assumed.

“Article IX

“Decision-Making

” * * *

“3.   In exceptional circumstances, the Ministerial Conference may decide to waive an obligation imposed on a Member by this Agreement or any of the Multilateral Trade Agreements, provided that any such decision shall be taken by three fourths of the Members unless otherwise provided for in this paragraph.

“(a)    A request for a waiver concerning this Agreement shall be submitted to the Ministerial Conference for consideration pursuant to the practice of decision-making by consensus. The Ministerial Conference shall establish a time-period, which shall not exceed 90 days, to consider the request. If consensus is not reached during the time-period, any decision to grant a waiver shall be taken by three fourths of the Members.
 

“(b)    A request for a waiver concerning the Multilateral Trade Agreements in Annexes 1A or 1B or 1C and their annexes shall be submitted initially to the Council for Trade in Goods, the Council for Trade in Services or the Council for TRIPS, respectively, for consideration during a time-period which shall not exceed 90 days. At the end of the time-period, the relevant Council shall submit a report to the Ministerial Conference.

“4.   A decision by the Ministerial Conference granting a waiver shall state the exceptional circumstances justifying the decision, the terms and conditions governing the application of the waiver, and the date on which the waiver shall terminate. Any waiver granted for a period of more than one year shall be reviewed by the Ministerial Conference not later than one year after it is granted, and thereafter annually until the waiver terminates. In each review, the Ministerial Conference shall examine whether the exceptional circumstances justifying the waiver still exist and whether the terms and conditions attached to the waiver have been met. The Ministerial Conference, on the basis of the annual review, may extend, modify or terminate the waiver.”

Some questions from the waiver proposal

The waiver proposal put forward by India and South Africa is extraordinarily broad – covering all WTO Members for a broad range of products not clearly delineated, with the waiver of a broad array of TRIPS obligations without a demonstration of the relevance of the requests for some (e.g., copyright) for a potentially lengthy period of time.

The proposal raises a series of questions that should be addressed to understand whether the waiver is appropriate. These questions include whether such a broad waiver request is appropriate or envisioned by Article IX:3 and 4 of the Marrakesh Agreement? Shouldn’t those requesting a waiver be required to demonstrate that the existing flexibilities within the TRIPS Agreement are inadequate to address concerns they may have? Can two Members request a waiver of obligations for all WTO Members? Can a waiver request be considered where the product scope is lacking clarity, and the uses/needs of the waiver are very broad and potentially open to differing views? To what extent is there a need for those seeking a waiver to present a factual record of actions being taken by governments, companies and international organizations to provide access to medical goods during the pandemic including to developing and least developed countries? Shouldn’t those seeking a waiver identify the extent of existing licenses by major pharmaceutical companies with them or other WTO Members for the production of vaccines or therapeutics to address COVID-19?

Historical usage of waivers have not been as broad as that requested by India and South Africa

Waivers are exceptional by their nature and Article IX:3 talks in terms of a waiver of some obligation for a particular Member, not the waiver of many parts of an agreement for all members. When one looks at waivers granted previously by the WTO, one sees a range of topics — many relate to time for Members to implement changes from updates of the harmonized tariff systems (for individual countries who sought the temporary waiver), some pertain to preferential arrangements between one Member and another or a group of Members and some pertain to waiver of deadlines or specific obligations for least developed countries. Two documents prepared by the WTO Secretariat show waivers granted or continuing in existence in 2019 and all waivers between 1995 AND 2015. The two documents are embedded below.

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Thus, the present request for a waiver by India and South Africa doesn’t seem to comply with the literal terms of Article IX:3 of the Marrakesh Agreement or with the much more narrow scope of waivers typically considered. As reviewed above, the request would apply to all members, not just India and South Africa. The request also seems overly broad both in terms of products (not clearly defined), uses and provisions to be waived.

Existing flexibilities within the TRIPs Agreement

Because of the importance to all WTO Members of the health of their citizens, there has been a lot of focus and discussion within the WTO on the interface between intellectual property and public health. Under the original TRIPs Agreement and the subsequent amendment to the Agreement in 2005 that took effect as Article 31bis to the TRIPs Agreement in 2017, there is flexibility within the TRIPs Agreement for Members to deal with health emergencies including through compulsory licensing which can include the right to manufacture and export to developing and least developed countries who don’t have pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities in-country. See TRIPs Agreement Article 31, Article 31bis and WT/L/641. The current language of Articles 31 and 31bis from the patent portion of the TRIPS Agreement are presented below.

Article 31 Other Use Without Authorization of the Right Holder

“Where the law of a Member allows for other use (7) of the subject matter of a patent without the authorization of the right holder, including use by the government or third parties authorized by the government, the following provisions shall be respected:

“(a)  authorization of such use shall be considered on its individual merits;
 

“(b)  such use may only be permitted if, prior to such use, the proposed user has made efforts to obtain authorization from the right holder on reasonable commercial terms and conditions and that such efforts have not been successful within a reasonable period of time. This requirement may be waived by a Member in the case of a national emergency or other circumstances of extreme urgency or in cases of public non-commercial use. In situations of national emergency or other circumstances of extreme urgency, the right holder shall, nevertheless, be notified as soon as reasonably practicable. In the case of public non-commercial use, where the government or contractor, without making a patent search, knows or has demonstrable grounds to know that a valid patent is or will be used by or for the government, the right holder shall be informed promptly;
 

“(c)  the scope and duration of such use shall be limited to the purpose for which it was authorized, and in the case of semi-conductor technology shall only be for public non-commercial use or to remedy a practice determined after judicial or administrative process to be anti-competitive;
 

“(d)  such use shall be non-exclusive;
 

“(e)  such use shall be non-assignable, except with that part of the enterprise or goodwill which enjoys such use;
 

“(f)  any such use shall be authorized predominantly for the supply of the domestic market of the Member authorizing such use;
 

 “(g)  authorization for such use shall be liable, subject to adequate protection of the legitimate interests of the persons so authorized, to be terminated if and when the circumstances which led to it cease to exist and are unlikely to recur. The competent authority shall have the authority to review, upon motivated request, the continued existence of these circumstances;
 

“(h)  the right holder shall be paid adequate remuneration in the circumstances of each case, taking into account the economic value of the authorization;
 

“(i)  the legal validity of any decision relating to the authorization of such use shall be subject to judicial review or other independent review by a distinct higher authority in that Member;
 

“(j)  any decision relating to the remuneration provided in respect of such use shall be subject to judicial review or other independent review by a distinct higher authority in that Member;
 

“(k)  Members are not obliged to apply the conditions set forth in subparagraphs (b) and (f) where such use is permitted to remedy a practice determined after judicial or administrative process to be anti-competitive. The need to correct anti-competitive practices may be taken into account in determining the amount of remuneration in such cases. Competent authorities shall have the authority to refuse termination of authorization if and when the conditions which led to such authorization are likely to recur;
 

“(l)  where such use is authorized to permit the exploitation of a patent (“the second patent”) which cannot be exploited without infringing another patent (“the first patent”), the following additional conditions shall apply:
 

“(i)  the invention claimed in the second patent shall involve an important technical advance of considerable economic significance in relation to the invention claimed in the first patent;
 

“(ii) the owner of the first patent shall be entitled to a cross-licence on reasonable terms to use the invention claimed in the second patent; and
 

“(iii)  the use authorized in respect of the first patent shall be non-assignable except with the assignment of the second patent.

Article 31bis

“1. The obligations of an exporting Member under Article 31(f) shall not apply with respect to the grant by it of a compulsory licence to the extent necessary for the purposes of production of a pharmaceutical product(s) and its export to an eligible importing Member(s) in accordance with the terms set out in paragraph 2 of the Annex to this Agreement.

“2. Where a compulsory licence is granted by an exporting Member under the system set out in this Article and the Annex to this Agreement, adequate remuneration pursuant to Article 31(h) shall be paid in that Member taking into account the economic value to the importing Member of the use that has been authorized in the exporting Member. Where a compulsory licence is granted for the same products in the eligible importing Member, the obligation of that Member under Article 31(h) shall not apply in respect of those products for which remuneration in accordance with the first sentence of this paragraph is paid in the exporting Member.

“3. With a view to harnessing economies of scale for the purposes of enhancing purchasing power for, and facilitating the local production of, pharmaceutical products: where a developing or least developed country WTO Member is a party to a regional trade agreement within the meaning of Article XXIV of the GATT 1994 and the Decision of 28 November 1979 on Differential and More Favourable Treatment Reciprocity and Fuller Participation of Developing Countries (L/4903), at least half of the current membership of which is made up of countries presently on the United Nations list of least developed countries, the obligation of that Member under Article 31(f) shall not apply to the extent necessary to enable a pharmaceutical product produced or imported under a compulsory licence in that Member to be exported to the markets of those other developing or least developed country parties to the regional trade agreement that share the health problem in question. It is understood that this will not prejudice the territorial nature of the patent rights in question.

“4. Members shall not challenge any measures taken in conformity with the provisions of this Article and the Annex to this Agreement under subparagraphs 1(b) and 1(c) of Article XXIII of GATT 1994.

“5. This Article and the Annex to this Agreement are without prejudice to the rights, obligations and flexibilities that Members have under the provisions of this Agreement other than paragraphs (f) and (h) of Article 31, including those reaffirmed by the Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health (WT/MIN(01)/DEC/2), and to their interpretation. They are also without prejudice to the extent to which pharmaceutical products produced under a compulsory licence can be exported under the provisions of Article 31(f).”

The WTO Secretariat has a page on its website that discusses intellectual property and the public interest, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/trips_e/trips_and_public_interest_e.htm, which reviews both flexibilities for Members in addressing public interest needs as well as current topics being discussed within the TRIPS Council. There also have been publications by the WTO Secretariat, WIPO and WHO on flexibilities in accessing medical technologies. See, e.g., WTO, WIPO and WHO, Promoting Access to Medical Technologies and Innovation, SECOND EDITION, https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/booksp_e/who-wipo-wto_2020_e.pdf. And on October 21, 2020 the WTO held a technical workshop on health, trade and intellectual property in addressing COVID-19. See 21 October 2020, WTO workshop on health, trade and intellectual property: an integrated approach to COVID-19; https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/heal_21oct20_e.htm. There is a lengthy combined powerpoint presentation available from the webpage which was used in the workshop.

Thus, there can be no doubt that the WTO TRIPS Agreement provides significant flexibilities to Members to address health emergencies. The waiver proposal from India and South Africa doesn’t review any actual efforts to utilize the flexibilities but just opines that Members won’t be able to effectively utilize them. Such an approach should not be acceptable for such far reaching requests as the proposal from India and South Africa.

Ongoing efforts by governments, companies and organizations to make medical goods available to developing and least developed countries

Strangely missing from the waiver request submitted by India and South Africa is any mention of the global efforts underway to ensure access to medical goods and vaccines and therapeutics as approved.

There have been various fund raising efforts in 2020 to provide the necessary wherewithal to organizations focused on developing vaccines for global distribution or focused on the distribution of medical goods, vaccines and therapeutics globally.

CEPI and GAVI in coordination with the WHO have extensive efforts underway, including access to large manufacturing capacity for approved vaccines within the pool of vaccines being developed and included in the CEPI portfolio.

In addition, some private companies involved in manufacturing vaccines under development have licensing arrangements with certain producers for distribution to developing and least developing countries. Some companies have made access to the drawings of their medical equipment available to any company wishing to produce the equipment.

Thus, it is hard to understand a need for a broad waiver when there is considerable international cooperation and substantial vaccine capacity available for some of the vaccines in late stage testing. The WTO membership deserves to have a full compilation of developments and existing actions to facilitate access to medical supplies for developing and least developed countries. The India and South Africa waiver proposal provides none of the relevant information.

While it is not the purpose of this post to develop the full factual record, I provide below some links which supply some information on ongoing developments. See The Guardian, October 20, 2020, India at heart of global efforts to produce Covid vaccine, Country plays central role in development, manufacture, and possible distribution of potential vaccines, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/20/india-at-heart-of-global-efforts-to-produce-covid-vaccine (“A deal has already been struck for the Serum Institute of India, based in the city of Pune, to produce 1bn doses of the the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, seen as the forerunner in the vaccine race.” “Johnson and Johnson, whose Covid-19 vaccine is also in phase 3 clinical trials, has struck a deal with the Indian pharmaceutical company Biological E to produce up to 500m doses if successful.” “Bharat Biotech, a Hyderabad-based pharmaceutical company, has a deal to manufacture 1bn doses of Washington University’s intranasal vaccine, now in clinical trials, and Indian pharmaceutical giant Dr Reddy’s has a deal to do a phase 2/3 human trials in India of Russia’s controversial Sputnik vaccine and then produce 100m doses. There are also at least a dozen indigenous vaccines being developed within India. ” “Poonawalla of the Serum Institute said that ‘50% of whatever quantity we manufacture will be kept for India and the remaining will go to low- and middle-income countries.'”).

GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, October 15, 2020, COVID-19 SITUATION REPORT #19, https://www.gavi.org/sites/default/files/covid/Gavi-COVID-19-Situation-Report-19-20201015.pdf (“COVAX is the vaccines pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, co-led by Gavi, the Coalition
for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and WHO. Gavi is coordinating the development and implementation of the COVAX Facility, the global procurement mechanism of COVAX. The COVAX Facility will make investments across a broad portfolio of promising vaccine candidates (including those being supported by CEPI) to make sure at-risk investment in manufacturing happens now. Gavi is also coordinating the development and implementation of the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC), the financing instrument that will support the participation of 92 low- and middle-income countries and economies in the COVAX Facility.
The goals of the COVAX Facility and AMC include:
“❖ to support the largest actively managed portfolio of vaccine candidates globally
“❖ to deliver 2 billion doses by the end of 2021
“❖ to offer a compelling return on investment by delivering COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible
“❖ to guarantee fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all participants
“❖ to end the acute phase of the pandemic by the end of 2021”).

CEPI, October 21, 2020, CEPI expands global manufacturing network, reserving manufacturing capacity for more than 1billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines, https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/cepi-expands-global-manufacturing-network-reserving-manufacturing-capacity-over-1-billion-doses (“CEPI signs agreements with Biofabri (Spain) and GC Pharma (Republic of Korea) to reserve vaccine manufacturing capacity for more than 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines designated by CEPI.
CEPI’s strategic investments in vaccine manufacturing at facilities around the world will support the COVAX goal to produce 2 billion doses of safe and effective vaccine by the end of 2021.”).

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic presents a global health crisis. In response to the crisis there have been activities within the WTO to minimize restrictions on the movement of medical goods and a workshop looking at the interface of trade, intellectual property and public health to help Members address internal needs. The TRIPS Agreement has various flexibilities to permit Members to address health challenges. At the same time there have been extraordinary efforts by many governments, companies and international organizations to cooperate both to develop vaccines and therapeutics but also to speed up manufacturing and work towards equitable distribution of medical goods. Leading pharmaceutical companies have already entered into licensing arrangements to provide billions of doses of vaccines when approved to developing and least developing countries. GAVI and CEPI in coordination with the WHO are working on supporting various vaccine development, securing manufacturing capacity and raising funds to permit broad distribution of vaccines and other products to countries in need and others who have contributed to the group effort.

So factually, it is hard to understand the waiver request filed by India and South Africa. Against a backdrop of how waivers have been used in the past and the lack of a demonstration that existing flexibilities won’t provide acceptable answers, the waiver proposal also is deficient in terms of legal justification. The proposal is not justified, is too broad both in terms of product coverage, Members who would be given waivers, and the range of
TRIPS provisions that would be waived for some number of years.

These are serious problems with a proposal that requires TRIPS Council action and referral to the General Council by the end of the year. Thus, the TRIPS Council should recommend against acceptance of the waiver proposal put forward by India and South Africa.