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COVID-19 – continued global growth of cases; shift continues to Latin America, parts of Asia and the Middle East

Four months after COVID-19 peaked in China, where the virus started, the world continues to stagger under an expanding case load of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Indeed, in the last two weeks new cases around the world have increased by 1.567 million to reach a current global total since the end of December of 6.835 million as of June 7. These number compare to less than 55,000 global cases (nearly all in China) in early February. During the last two weeks, new confirmed cases increased 22.32% from the prior two weeks and continue a chain of unbroken increases since the beginning of March.

As much of the developed world has seen a peak in the number of cases, the continued growth in new cases reflects shifting centers or hot spots generally to developing countries. In looking at 25 countries that have accounted for more than 80% of all cases through June 7, ten of these countries have not yet reached a peak — Brazil, Chile, Egypt, India, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa — while the other fifteen have peaked and seen declines from peak of between 10% and 99%. These fifteen countries are Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States. Still these 25 countries saw a combined increase in total new cases of 18.7% in the last fourteen days. All other countries saw a much larger increase in new cases, 39.61% from 220,812 cases the previous 14 days to 308,293. Some countries of note in this “all other” grouping include Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Nepal, Oman, Qatar, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. See https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases. June 7th report embedded below.

COVID-19-situation-update-worldwide-as-of-7-June-2020

The shifting focus of cases to developing and least developed countries raises increased concerns about access to medical goods, including personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other goods. The WTO’s list of measures applied by Members dealing with COVID-19 either to restrict exports of medical goods or food products or to improve market access , shows dozens of countries applying export restraints on various medical goods (masks, gloves, etc.) including countries where new cases are well past peak (indeed where new cases may be 90% below peak). The WTO information is current as of May 29, 2020. There are also a large number of countries reducing tariffs or streamlining importation of medical goods. https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/trade_related_goods_measure_e.htm.

Moreover, health care infrastructure is often weaker in many of these countries facing growing COVID-19 cases, and the structure of their economies may complicate the ability of governments to address the pandemic even if medical goods are available. A recent article reviews the challenges in Latin America. See https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/06/americas/latin-america-coronavirus-intl/index.html.

Some major players like the United States, the European Union and its member states, and China are both investing large amounts in research and development and also securing early access to any vaccines developed through early commitments and other actions. https://www.biospace.com/article/eu-using-2-7-million-emergency-fund-to-buy-promising-covid-19-vaccines/. With the number of R&D projects ongoing around the world and the efforts of companies and governments to get manufacturing geared up early on promising products, the likelihood of earlier availability of large quantities of vaccines should there be breakthroughs has improved.

The question of equitable and affordable availability for all peoples is certainly there for a global pandemic where major players are funding research and have the resources to get early commitments for supplies. But greater manufacturing capacity earlier should improve global availability. So too the efforts of many countries, organizations and businesses to ensure both availability of vaccines and the distribution of such products to those in need is a major factor in ensuring greater access at affordable prices. As the news from the June 4 GAVI conference in London demonstrates, many are uniting to ensure that small children who have been unable to receive various immunizations against other diseases are able to do so yet this year as well as meet the needs of the pandemic for many developing and least developed countries. See https://www.gavi.org/news/media-room/world-leaders-make-historic-commitments-provide-equal-access-vaccines-all.

Conclusion

The pandemic is continuing to worsen on a global basis even as parts of Asia, Western Europe, Oceania, Canada and the United States are post-peak and starting a process of reopening. The tremendous growth in the number of cases is in developing and least developed countries, those least prepared to handle the health and economic fall out.

The trade news is mixed. Many countries are liberalizing imports of medical goods during the pandemic which is obviously a positive. However, dozens of countries have introduced export restrictions in an environment in which global supply has lagged global demand, and countries have scrambled to protect access to what supplies they can. Many of these restrictions should be removed at this point, at least by countries that are well past peak demand situations.

Ramp up in global production of many medical goods has occurred, though it is unclear if demand/supply balance has been achieved or how/if the world will build the necessary national and regional inventories to handle a second wave or future pandemics. Moreover, without knowing how much larger the number of new cases will become before there is a global peak, it is hard to know if expansion of production of medical goods will be adequate to meet demand in the coming months. Efforts by the G-20 in the trade and investment area are a start but limited in terms of likely actual effect.

Factually, there have substantial declines in global trade flowing from the lock down situation in large parts of the world over the last few months. Trade flows should increase in those parts of the world where reopening is occurring but will likely further decrease in countries where the pandemic is picking up its infection rate. The economic toll on many countries who have come through the worst of the pandemic has been unprecedented and will present challenges to their ability to rebound quickly and to their willingness to increase financial assistance to others.

While success in finding vaccines or therapeutics is never guaranteed (indeed no vaccine for HIV has been found despite efforts for 40 years), there has never been the global focus on R&D and the willingness to risk large amounts of capital to be ready to produce large volumes of doses for any products demonstrating effectiveness. While the global community is not unified in its support of the WHO or in cooperating to achieve equitable and affordable access for all, there has been important support for both which should improve achieving a global solution if vaccines are developed that are effective.

Finally, it is hard to imagine significant forward movement at the WTO on its current negotiations or on WTO reform (including of the dispute settlement system) while Members are struggling to address the fallout from the pandemic. And, of course, with the WTO turning its attention to the selection of a new Director-General in light of DG Azevedo’s departure at the end of August, achieving focus on the normal work of the WTO will be that much harder until a new DG has been selected.

Bottom line – a continued difficult 2020 in the second half of the year.