Northern Ireland

The EU’s export authorization requirement for COVID-19 vaccines — contrary to their oft repeated position of maintaining open markets during the pandemic

If one ever needed confirmation that WTO Members can easily fall out of supporting open markets and working together during a global crisis, the European Union’s actions over the last week to come up with an implementing regulation “making the exportation of certain products subject to the production of an export authorization” provide a glaring example.

Faced with the receipt of fewer doses of vaccines by the three manufacturers approved (with one only approved last week) for distribution within the EU, the EU faced harsh criticism from member states over the inadequate supplies of vaccines in the December – February period to vaccinate their populations. Harsh criticism was also reflected in press coverage. See, e.g., New York Times, Vaccine Shortages Hit E.U. in a Setback for Its Immunization Race, January 27, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/27/world/europe/europe-covid-vaccinations.html; Der Spiegel, Europe’s Vaccine Disaster, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Seeking to Duck Responsibility, 29 January 2021, https://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/europe-s-vaccine-disaster-commission-president-ursula-von-der-leyen-seeking-to-duck-responsibility-a-1197547d-6219-4438-9d69-b76e64701802; Financial Times, Shortage of coronavirus shots heaps pressure on European leaders, 29 January 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/fe851440-abcb-43e0-a7c9-a86a05d275db.

The response was to resort to a form of export restraints on vaccines and inputs for vaccines where the European Union and its member states would decide whether shipments to certain third countries (largely wealthier countries around the world) would be allowed. Some statements made by the European Commission and the implementing regulation are embedded below.

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The action of the European Union last week is in sharp contrast to the joint initiative from the Ottawa Group, of which the EU is a member. In a post last November, I reviewed a text put forward by the Ottawa Group which called for limiting the use of export restraints during the pandemic. 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/. Several excerpts from the earlier post are provided below.

“The Ottawa Group agreed to put forward a communication seeking action by WTO Members. Each of Canada and the EU (and likely other members) put out press releases. See, e.g., Government of Canada, November 23, 2020, Minister Ng hosts successful ministerial meeting of the Ottawa Group on WTO reform, https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2020/11/minister-ng-hosts-successful-ministerial-meeting-of-the-ottawa-group-on-wto-reform.html; European Commission, Directorate-General for Trade, 23 November 2020, Ottawa Group proposes a global Trade and Health Initiative, https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/press/index.cfm?id=2215&title=Ottawa-Group-proposes-a-global-Trade-and-Health-Initiative.

“The Canadian press release states in part, ‘As countries face a rise in COVID-19 cases, it is essential that governments minimize disruptions to trade flows in essential medical supplies. Today, members of the Ottawa Group took important steps toward a proposed WTO Trade and Health Initiative, which identifies short-term actions to strenghten supply chains and ensure the free flow of medicines and medical supplies.’

“Similarly the European Commission press release stated that –

“‘Today the Ottawa Group, a group of 13 like-minded World Trade Organisation (WTO) partners including the EU, agreed today on an initiative, calling on the WTO members to increase their cooperation and work toward enhanced global rules to facilitate trade in essential medical goods. The agreement took place as an outcome of the Ottawa Group Ministerial meeting, hosted virtually by Minister Mary Ng of Canada.

“‘The Ottawa Group members called for immediate actions in response to the coronavirus crisis such as exercising a restraint in using any export restrictions, implementing trade-facilitating measures in the area of customs and services, as well as improving transparency.'”

Needless to say, the reaction from trading partners to the imposition of export controls on vaccines was swift and negative. See, e.g., Financial Times, EU faces global criticism over curbs on vaccine exports, 31 January 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/5c15d7ea-aaf6-46f4-924e-30f168dd14dd (“Brussels faces an international backlash over its new controls on vaccine exports as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen struggles to quell a firestorm over the EU’s handling of vaccine shortages. Canada and Japan raised concerns over export rules requiring manufacturers to obtain permission before shipping Covid-19 jabs outside the EU. South Korea also warned governments against a grab for more vaccines than they need.”); BBC News, Coronavirus: WHO criticises EU over vaccine export controls, 30 January 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55860540. Because the EU action seemed largely aimed at discontent with news from the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca’s announcement of a sharp contraction in likely shipments to the EU in the first quarter, the Commission’s initial draft of the implementing regulation had the EU creating problems for the Brexit agreement in terms of inspecting goods flowing from Ireland and Northern Ireland to prevent circumvention of products to the U.K. The EC retreated almost immediately on that front. See, e.g., NPR, EU Reverses Move To Restrict Export Of COVID-19 Vaccines To Northern Ireland, January 30, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2021/01/30/962454276/eu-reverses-move-to-restrict-export-of-covid-19-vaccines-to-northern-ireland (“The European Union reversed a brief decision to try to restrict the export of COVID-19 vaccines across the border from Ireland into Northern Ireland. European vaccination campaigns have been struggling as supplies of vaccines on the continent have run low. The decision to invoke an emergency protocol of the Brexit deal was seen as an effort to keep supplies from going from the EU to Britain. But within hours of the decision, which could have put checks on the border between the EU member the Republic of Ireland and British-controlled Northern Ireland, Irish and British officials condemned the move.”).

One concern for the global trading system from the EU action, of course, is retaliatory or mirror actions by trading partners. Such concerns are real. See, e.g., Politico, UK weighs vaccine export restrictions, January 29, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/uk-weighs-coronavirus-vaccine-export-restrictions/ (“The U.K. government has sought legal advice on preventing coronavirus vaccines or their ingredients being exported, suggesting that ministers are actively considering countermeasures they could deploy if other countries start restricting cross-border movements of vaccines.”).

The WHO and WTO have been advocating for cooperation among nations and businesses to ensure that all peoples are able to be vaccinated in a timely and cost affordable way. The phrase, “no one is safe until all are safe” typifies the call and is supported by research that indicates global GDP will be seriously restricted if that approach is not followed. See January 27, 2021, Recent WTO report on services trade and January 2021 International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook Update — the future growth depends on vaccinations of peoples around the world, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/27/recent-wto-report-on-services-trade-and-january-2021-international-monetary-fund-world-economic-outlook-update-the-future-growth-depends-on-vaccinations-of-peoples-around-the-world/ (“The WHO’s Director-General references a report from the International Chamber of Commerce Research Foundation. The report and a press release can be accessed here: ICC, The Economic Case for Global Vaccinations, https://iccwbo.org/publication/the-economic-case-for-global-vaccinations/. The press release from the ICC describes the report as follows. ‘A study commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Research Foundation has found that the global economy stands to lose as much as US$9.2 trillion if governments fail to ensure developing economy access to COVID-19 vaccines.'”).

The worrying actions by the European Union and the continued struggle to get vaccines to the world’s poorest countries led to a joint statement today by the WTO’s four Deputy Directors-General calling for heightened cooperation to get vaccines to all peoples of the world. WTO press release, WTO DDGs call for heightened cooperation on vaccine availability, 1 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/ddgra_01feb21_e.htm. (“‘The pandemic is a global problem. This challenge calls for heightened international cooperation, including ensuring the global availability of vaccines. Recalling the joint statement by the Directors-General of the WHO and WTO on 20 April 2020, we call upon Members to work together towards making vaccines available to all. Moreover, the war against the pandemic can only be won when universal coverage in vaccination is achieved.’”). The press release includes a link to the 20 April 2020 joint statement by the Directors-General of the WHO and WTO (embedded below).

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As the world enters the month of February, there are 69 countries that report vaccinating at least some people by the end of January. The list, number of vaccinations and number of vaccinations per 100 people are tracked by the Financial Times in its “Covid-19 vaccine tracker: the global race to vaccinate” last updated on February 1, 2021. https://ig.ft.com/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker/. While there are many vaccines in late stage of trials or going through approval processes by the WTO or individual countries, the world is a long way from ensuring equitable access to vaccines at affordable prices at the beginning of February. Hopefully, with production ramp up and more vaccines approved in the coming months, that situation will change by the second quarter of 2021.

Conclusion

While export restraints are not prohibited by the WTO, the world has struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep markets open and ensure availability of medical products to all nations. The EU had early challenges with export restraints that member states were imposing on medical goods including personal protective equipment. However, the EU has attempted to provide leadership in limiting those restraints and supporting the COVAX mechanism for getting vaccines to the poorest countries as well as others participating in the COVAX approach.

The combination of a greater than expected second surge of COVID-19 cases in the fall and the rapid spread of more contagious variants in the last several months has posed significant challenges to many countries but including those within the EU. Some internal challenges and different approaches to vaccine contracting led the EU to sign contracts later and to approve vaccines for use later than some other countries. With manufacturing challenges for a number of suppliers, the EU has found itself in a situation where member states were extremely unhappy with the inability to get more people vaccinated sooner. The European Commission’s efforts to improve its vaccine situation has generated a great deal of negative press, led to the imposition of export restraints that could lead to a significant breakdown in supply chains and potential retaliation by trading partners adversely affected and harms the EU’s efforts to be a leader for global unity in addressing the pandemic.