WHO

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.

W669

W669C1

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.

W795

W718

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.


Transparency on trade actions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic

Global confirmed cases of COVID-19 will reach two million today, April 15, with the actual number likely much higher and with deaths over 125,000. Nearly every country on earth has at least some confirmed cases.

Different countries and territories are at different stages in dealing with COVID-19 infections, with China, South Korea and Singapore seemingly well past the worst of the first wave of infections. Countries in Europe and various states within the United States are also seeing the rate of infection flatten or even decline following weeks of stay-at-home orders, social distancing and drastic changes to daily life. Hot spots are shifting both within countries (e.g., the United States) and to different countries.

The economic cost of closing down portions of economies has been unprecedented with the IMF characterizing the hit on global GDP to be the worst since the great depression of the 1930s. https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/04/14/weo-april-2020. To avoid even worse economic fallout, countries are pouring huge sums into their economies to prevent massive bankruptcies, limit unemployment and provide expanded social safety nets. Press reports suggest at least $8 trillion has been committed with more being considered in various countries.

For countries who are witnessing likely GDP reductions of as much as 35% in one of the first two quarters of 2020, governments are mapping out scenarios for reopening closed portions of their economies if they have been recent epicenters or engaged in phased reopening if apparently largely past the first phase. Such planning is occurring at the subnational, national or trading bloc level (EU) with little apparent effort to coordinate efforts around the world. Where plans are being discussed publicly, common elements appear to be expanded and harmonized testing (both for the infection and for antibodies), ability to do tracing of individuals who have been in contact with individuals found to have the virus to secure quarantining, capacity of the healthcare system to handle cases, and adequacy of supplies. Concerns about privacy interests are also part of the discussion/needs for democracies. See, e.g., European Commission roadmap released April 15, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_652; https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/communication_-_a_european_roadmap_to_lifting_coronavirus_containment_measures_0.pdf

For most of the developing and least developed countries, the pandemic has yet to show its full force. Many of these countries have inadequate healthcare infrastructure and don’t have the internal manufacturing capabilities or financial resources to handle the pandemic without assistance if they become an epicenter.

The world has seen limited actual coordination of efforts by major players despite commitments by G20 countries although funding for multilateral institutions like the IMF have been increased to facilitate expanded efforts for the weakest countries. There also seems to be an exchange of information and some cooperation in the research efforts underway to find a vaccine.

Many countries who have been hard hit by the pandemic were slow to recognize the extent of the challenge and often slow in implementing comprehensive actions which has exacerbated the challenges, the loss of life and the harm to their economies. This has led to some lack of transparency at least in the early days and perhaps a reluctance for greater cooperation.

The pandemic’s spread has led to extraordinary gaps in supply availability versus short term demand requirements. For example, the OECD indicated that China, which manufactures half of the world supply of masks, found demand for masks at the peak of the crisis in China at ten times the beginning manufacturing capability of the country. Even after ramp up of production, demand in China was twice as large as the dramatically expanded manufacturing capabilities until the country’s infection rate declined. With both the EU and the US going through huge expansions of COVID-19 cases in March and into April, the global shortage problem has been continued and magnified despite additional capacity expansions occurring in other countries.

With no current vaccine to deal with the infections, countries faced with expanding case loads have often shifted to imposing export restraints to prevent loss of scarce supplies, encouraging expanded production, and using other tactics to address domestic demand even if reducing supply to other countries or even if local actions are counterproductive because of global supply chains and similar actions by others. Export restraints have been imposed by close to 70 countries or territories and include actions by China, the EU, the United States and many others, though restraints are arguably temporary and may have exceptions depending on the country applying the restraints. And countries who had export restraints at one point, may be significant exporters later (China) or had been exporters to hard hit countries prior to ramp up of internal demand (e.g., U.S. to China).

Importance of transparency in times of crisis

Each government attempts to provide some level of transparency to its citizens and businesses on actions it is taking. Members of the WTO have committed to providing information on trade measures taken to respond to COVID-19 and groups of countries (G20) have supported that effort. As of April 14th, WTO Members had provided 49 notifications of trade actions related to COVID-19 that either restricted goods or liberalized movement of goods https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/covid19_e.htm. While this is a start, there are likely dozens or hundreds of other actions that have not been notified as yet (including actions that may have been withdrawn after a period of time). The lack of full transparency by WTO Members is unfortunate and prevents other Members to understand the reality around the world or to understand potential best practices by other trading partners.

Some business trade associations have put together data bases of actions addressing particular actions important to their members. For example, the Baltic and International Maritime Council (“BiMCO”) has compiled and updates port restrictions/requirements including ability of crew to depart cargo ships in ports, etc. https://www.bimco.org/ships-ports-and-voyage-planning/crew-support/health-and-medical-support/novel-coronavirus—implementation-measures. Similarly, IATA has collected and updates data on requirements for airlines (passenger and air cargo) by country. https://www.iata.org/en/programs/safety/health/diseases/government-measures-related-to-coronavirus/. The data compiled is obviously important for the ships and planes moving cargo internationally. So transparency exists because of efforts of business associations. Unfortunately, one does not see any effort by governments to harmonize requirements across countries to simplify and reduce the costs of moving essential goods.

It does not appear that there are readily accessible data on all suppliers globally of essential medical goods, capacity expansions, current bottlenecks, product availability, etc. It is not clear if such data could be compiled by industry associations or by governments. Presumably such information would be important for a global effort to maximize availability of products to all countries during the pandemic, identify ongoing shortages, prioritize where additional products are needed and so forth. The lack of such information has to be a major shortfall in the transparency needs to effectively deal with the pandemic.

Individual governments, of course, address internal needs on an ongoing basis through notices, regulations, etc. Many of these actions could be notified to international organizations (e.g., to the WTO) in addition to being available domestically. Expanding notifications would improve transparency and potentially encourage other governments to adopt best practices of other countries.

In the United States, many agencies, as well as the White House, are involved in different aspects of keeping goods moving during the pandemic or in restricting the export of such goods. For example, to look just at a few of the agencies involved in the United States, the State Department has made announcements on ensuring H-2 visas for farm workers. https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/News/visas-news/important-announcement-on-h2-visas.html. Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection have taken various actions to expedite clearance of essential goods or implement Administration restrictions on the export of goods. https://www.fema.gov/news-release/2020/04/08/fema-covid-19-supply-chain-task-force-supply-chain-stabilization; https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/coronavirus. The Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have issued various notices addressing special needs for agricultural goods with the collapse of food service sector which supplies restaurants (e.g., temporary waiver of requirements for country of origin information or certain labeling requirements for goods originally destined for food service that are being sold at retail). https://www.usda.gov/coronavirus; https://www.ams.usda.gov/content/usda-announces-labeling-flexibilities-facilitate-distribution-food-retail-locations; https://www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/counterterrorism-and-emerging-threats/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19. FEMA, EXIM and others are all playing roles as well.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has created extraordinary challenges for the health of the world’s peoples and has imposed unimaginable costs to the global and national economies. As countries work through their individual challenges, there are a spectrum of options to pursue that will reduce or expand the human and economic costs of the pandemic. International organizations are only as strong as their member governments permit them to be. Many observers have lamented the lack of global leadership. Such lack of leadership handicaps the ability and likelihood of countries to minimize the damage from the pandemic and to prepare better for future challenges. Transparency should be the bare minimum we receive from the world’s governments. While there is certainly some transparency on COVID-19 and trade actions being taken (better in some countries than others), we are not maximizing the benefits that broad-based transparency would make available for countries individually or acting collectively. There is still time for a better effort. There are real costs for failing to do all that can be done on this issue.

Food security – export restraints and border controls during the COVID-19 pandemic

While COVID-19 is first and foremost a health crisis, efforts to control the fallout from the virus have led to border controls on farm workers and encouraged some countries to impose export restraints on particular agricultural products. While the border control dimension to the problem is new, the world has in recent years gone through a number of situations where large numbers of countries have imposed export restraints on core agricultural products in an effort to ensure adequate supplies at home. The results are never positive for the global community and particularly harm the least developed countries and those dependent on imported food products.

For example, in 2007-2008, there were dozens of countries that imposed export restraints on specific items such as rice or wheat leading to massive price spikes and shortages of product available to countries dependent on imports. The nature and extent of the problem was outlined in a paper I prepared back in 2008 which is embedded below.

GDP

The crisis led to coordinated efforts by the various UN organizations to find solutions and ways of avoiding repeats moving forward. A policy report from multiple UN agencies was released on 2 June 2011, Price Volatility in Food and Agricultural Markets: Policy Responses.

igo_10jun11_report_e

Unfortunately, a number of countries in reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic have introduced export restraints on certain food products. Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam are some of the countries identified so far as introducing export restraints on selected agricultural products. In the past, export restraints by some have led to export restraints by many. The possibility of rapidly expanding restraints by trading nations is obviously a major concern and major complication to the global response to COVID-19.

Equally troubling are the potential challenges to agricultural product availability in countries that rely to some extent on temporary foreign labor to harvest produce and other products where border measures are restricting access of foreigners to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19. Coupled to that are concerns about whether imported agricultural products meet health and quality needs and any changes in approach to those issues during the pandemic.

As one example of the farm labor concern, the United States is a country that relies on temporary farm workers from outside of the country and has significant restrictions on the entry of foreign nationals from many areas at present. U.S. farmers have raised concerns about the availability of sufficient migrant labor to harvest the fields when product is ready. How the issue gets resolved in the United States is not yet clear. But the same or similar challenges will apply in any country where imported farm labor is important to the harvesting, processing or transporting of agricultural products.

That these multiple potential issues on agricultural goods trade are escalating can be seen in yesterday’s joint statement from the WTO, WHO and FAO. The joint statement is available on the WTO webpage, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/igo_26mar20_e.htm, and is reproduced below:

“Joint Statement by QU Dongyu, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Roberto Azevêdo, Directors-General of FAO, WHO and WTO

“Millions of people around the world depend on international trade for
their food security and livelihoods. As countries move to enact measures
aiming to halt the accelerating COVID-19 pandemic, care must be taken
to minimise potential impacts on the food supply or unintended
consequences on global trade and food security.

“When acting to protect the health and well-being of their citizens,
countries should ensure that any trade-related measures do not disrupt
the food supply chain. Such disruptions including hampering the
movement of agricultural and food industry workers and extending
border delays for food containers, result in the spoilage of perishables and increasing food waste. Food trade restrictions could also be linked
to unjustified concerns on food safety. If such a scenario were to
materialize, it would disrupt the food supply chain, with particularly
pronounced consequences for the most vulnerable and food insecure
populations.

“Uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export
restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market. Such reactions can
alter the balance between food supply and demand, resulting in price
spikes and increased price volatility. We learned from previous crises
that such measures are particularly damaging for low-income, food-deficit
countries and to the efforts of humanitarian organizations to procure food for those in desperate need.

“We must prevent the repeat of such damaging measures. It is at times like this that more, not less, international cooperation becomes vital. In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, every effort must be made to ensure that trade flows as freely as possible, specially to avoid food shortage. Similarly, it is also critical that food producers and food workers at processing and retail level are protected to minimise the spread of the disease within this sector and maintain food supply chains. Consumers, in particular the most vulnerable, must continue to be able to access food within their communities under strict safety requirements.   

“We must also ensure that information on food-related trade measures, levels of food production, consumption and stocks, as well as on food prices, is available to all in real time. This reduces uncertainty and allows producers, consumers and traders to make informed decisions. Above all, it helps contain ‘panic buying’ and the hoarding of food and other essential items.

“Now is the time to show solidarity, act responsibly and adhere to our common goal of enhancing food security, food safety and nutrition and improving the general welfare of people around the world.  We must ensure that our response to COVID-19 does not unintentionally create unwarranted shortages of essential items and exacerbate hunger and malnutrition.”

Conclusion

There is little doubt that COVID-19 is placing extraordinary strains on countries, their peoples, their economies and the ability and willingness to act globally as opposed to locally. The strains and how the world reacts will shape the world going forward and determine the magnitude of the devastation that occurs in specific markets and the broader global community.

The UN report released yesterday, Shared responsibility, global solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, and the statement from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres outline the enormity of the global challenges and a potential path to a better future. See https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1060702; https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/sg_report_socio-economic_impact_of_covid19.pdf.

The global health emergency is significantly worsened by the introduction of food security issues. Despite a better understanding of the causes and necessary approaches to minimize food security issues, the world has a poor track record on working for the collective good in agriculture when fears of food availability arise. An eruption of export restraints at the time of the global COVID-19 health crisis could indeed undermine societal stability.

Export restraints vs. trade liberalization during a global pandemic — the reality so far with COVID-19

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases (COVID-19) as of March 26, 2020 was approaching 500,000 globally, with the rate of increase in cases continuing to surge in a number of important countries or regions (e.g., Europe and the United States) with the locations facing the greatest strains shifting over time.

In an era of global supply chains, few countries are self-sufficient in all medical supplies and equipment needed to address a pandemic. Capacity constraints can occur in a variety of ways, including from overall demand exceeding the supply (production and inventories), from an inability or unwillingness to manage supplies on a national or global basis in an efficient and time responsive manner, by the reduction of production of components in one or more countries reducing the ability of downstream producers to complete products, by restrictions on modes of transport to move goods internationally or nationally, from the lack of availability of sufficient medical personnel or physical facilities to handle the increased work load and lack of facilities.

The reality of exponential growth of COVID-19 cases over weeks within a given country or region can overwhelm the ability of the local health care system to handle the skyrocketing demand. When that happens, it is a nightmare for all involved as patients can’t be handled properly or at all in some instances, death rates will increase, and health care providers and others are put at risk from a lack of adequate supplies and protective gear. Not surprisingly, shortages of supplies and equipment have been identified in a number of countries over the last three months where the growth in cases has been large. While it is understandable for national governments to seek to safeguard supplies of medical goods and equipment to care for their citizens, studies over time have shown that such inward looking actions can be short sighted, reduce the global ability to handle the crisis, increase the number of deaths and prevent the level of private sector response that open markets would support.

As we approach the end of March, the global community receives mixed grades on their efforts to work jointly and to avoid beggar-thy-neighbor policies. Many countries have imposed one or more restraints on exports of medical supplies and equipment with the number growing rapidly as the spread of COVID-19 outside of China has escalated particularly in March. Indeed, when one or more countries impose export restraints, it often creates a domino effect as countries who may depend in part on supplies from one or more of those countries, decides to impose restraints as well to limit shortages in country.

At the same time, the G-7, G-20 and others have issued statements or other documents indicating their political desire to minimize export restraints and keep trade moving. The WTO is collecting information from Members on actions that have been taken in response to COVID-19 to improve transparency and to enable WTO Members to identify actions where self-restraint or roll back would be useful. And some countries have engaged in unilateral tariff reductions on critical medical supplies and equipment.

Imposition of Export Restraints

The World Customs Organization has developed a list of countries that have imposed some form of export restraint in 2020 on critical medical supplies. In reviewing the WCO website today, the following countries were listed: Argentina, Bulgaria, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, European Union, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Serbia, Thailand, Ukraine and Vietnam. Today’s listing is copied below.

List-of-Countries-having-adopted-temporary-export-control-measures-Worl.._

While China is not listed on the WCO webpage, it is understood that they have had some restrictions in fact at least during the January-February period of rapid spread of COVID-19 in China.

While it is surprising to see the European Union on the list, the Official Journal notice of the action indicates that the action is both temprary (six weeks – will end around the end of April) and flows in part from the fact that sources of product used by the EU had been restricting exports. The March 15, 2020 Official Journal notice is attached below.

EC-Implementing-Regulation-EU-2020-402-of-14-March-2020-making-the-exportation-of-certain-products-subject-to-the-production-of-an-export-authorisation

Professor Simon Evenett, in a March 19, 2020 posting on VOX, “Sickening thy neighbor: Export restraints on medical supplies during a pandemic,” https://voxeu.org/article/export-restraints-medical-supplies-during-pandemic, reviews the challenges posed and provides examples of European countries preventing exports to neighbors — Germany preventing a shipment of masks to Switzerland and France preventing a shipment to the U.K.

In a webinar today hosted by the Washington International Trade Association and the Asia Society Policy Institute entitled “COVID-19 and Trade – A WTO Agenda,” Prof. Evenett reviewed his analysis and noted that the rate of increase for export restraints was growing with 48 of 63 actions occurring in March and 8 of those occurring in the last forty-eight hours. A total of 57 countries are apparently involved in one or more restraints. And restraints have started to expand from medical supplies and equipment to food with four countries mentioned by Prof. Evenett – Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Russia and Vietnam.

Efforts to keep markets open and liberalize critical medical supplies

Some countries have reduced tariffs on critical medical goods during the pandemic and some countries have also implemented green lane approaches for customs clearance on medical supplies and goods. Such actions are clearly permissible under the WTO, can be undertaken unilaterally and obviously reduce the cost of medical supplies and speed up the delivery of goods that enter from offshore. So it is surprising that more countries don’t help themselves by reducing tariffs temporarily (or permanently) on critical medical supplies and equipment during a pandemic.

Papers generated by others show that there are a large number of countries that apply customs duties on medical supplies, equipment and soaps and disinfectants. See, e.g., Jennifer Hillman, Six Proactive Steps in a Smart Trade Approach to Fighting COVID-19 (graphic from paper reproduced below), https://www.thinkglobalhealth.org/article/six-proactive-steps-smart-trade-approach-fighting-covid-19

Groups of countries have staked out positions of agreeing to work together to handle the pandemic and to keep trade open. For example, the G20 countries had a virtual emergency meeting today to explore the growing pandemic. Their joint statement can be found here and is embedded below, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_26mar20_e.pdf.

dgra_26mar20_e

There is one section of the joint statement that specifically addresses international trade disruptions during the pandemic. That language is repeated below:

“Addressing International Trade Disruptions

“Consistent with the needs of our citizens, we will work to ensure the flow of vital medical supplies, critical agricultural products, and other goods and services across borders, and work to resolve disruptions to the global supply chains, to support the health and well-being of all people.

“We commit to continue working together to facilitate international trade and coordinate responses in ways that avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade. Emergency measures aimed at protecting health will be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary. We task our Trade Ministers to assess the impact of the pandemic on trade.

“We reiterate our goal to realize a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open.”

The WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo participated in the virtual meeting with the G20 leaders and expressed strong support for the commitment of the G20 to working on the trade related aspects of the pandemic. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_26mar20_e.htm.

Separately, New Zealand and Singapore on March 21st issued a Joint Ministerial Statement which stated in part,

“The Covid-19 pandemic is a serious global crisis.

“As part of our collective response to combat the virus, Singapore and New Zealand are committed to maintaining open and connected supply chains. We will also work closely to identify and address trade disruptions with ramifications on the flow of necessities,”

https://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2020/03/21/new-zealand-works-closely-with-singapore-to-maintain-key-supply.

The Joint Ministerial Statement was expanded to seven countries (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Myanmar, New Zealand and Singapore), on March 25th and is reportedly open to additional countries joining. See https://www.mti.gov.sg/-/media/MTI/Newsroom/Press-Releases/2020/03/updated-joint-ministerial-statement-25-mar.pdf

Conclusion

When a pandemic strikes, many countries have trouble maintaining open trade policies on critical materials in short supply and/or in working collaboratively to address important supply chain challenges or in taking unilateral actions to make critical supplies available more efficiently and at lower costs.

The current global response to COVID-19 presents the challenges one would expect to see – many countries imposing temporary restrictions on exports — while positive actions in the trade arena are more limited to date with some hopeful signs of a potential effort to act collectively going forward.

Time will tell whether governments handling of the trade dimension of the pandemic contributes to the equitable solution of the pandemic or exacerbates the challenges and harm happening to countries around the world.