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Export barriers threaten global Covid battle

·4 min read
A shipment of COVID-19 vaccines distributed by the COVAX Facility arrives in Abidjan, Ivory Coast -  Diomande Ble Blonde/ AP
A shipment of COVID-19 vaccines distributed by the COVAX Facility arrives in Abidjan, Ivory Coast - Diomande Ble Blonde/ AP

The world’s fight against Covid-19 is under threat as countries push up export barriers amid fears that vaccine nationalism could haunt the global trade system for months to come.

Restrictions on medical exports that have jumped since the start of the pandemic show little signs of abating, according to analysis by the University of St Gallen, with vaccine-related barriers rising even higher this year.

Researchers found 119 new policy interventions affecting trade were introduced last month, with the “overwhelming majority” targeting the medical goods sector. Experts warn the measures could take a long time to unravel – and frustrate efforts to control the pandemic.

Fifty-four governments are behind export curbs on medical foods introduced since the start of the pandemic in an attempt to maintain stockpiles of PPE, respirators and other products.

Out of 38 policy interventions related to vaccines introduced so far this year, only four were aimed at freeing up trade, while 12 were explicit export curbs.

Professor Simon Evenett, who leads the HSG’s Essential Goods Monitoring Initiative, said policy steps taken over recent months are likely to remain in place.

“I think we’re stuck with them,” he said.

He noted that the major players attempting to control exports – the US, European Union and India – all face heavy domestic pressure to stop inoculations exiting their borders. “None of those underlying drivers go away in the next three months, possibly not even the next six months,” said Professor Evenett.

Former US President Donald Trump -  MANDEL NGAN/ AFP
Former US President Donald Trump - MANDEL NGAN/ AFP

Separately, the head of the CBI, Britain’s biggest business group, will warn on Monday of the growing tide of protectionism.

“Lately, protectionism has taken hold,” Tony Danker will tell a summit of business leaders from G7 countries.

“Data shows that in 2017 more than 50pc of exports from G20 countries were subject to restrictive trade measures. Everything from import tariffs to export bans. Up 30pc in 12 years.

“I worry these shifts mark a retreat from internationalism at the very moment we need it most.”

Out of 105 export controls on medical goods currently in effect, just 16 are set to lapse in 2021, the University of St Gallen data shows.

The figures suggest it would take widespread unilateral action by governments to bring down trade barriers and free up the movements of products essential for combating the pandemic.

The European Union has received criticism for its approach to vaccines controls, after a botched initial rollout and the Italian government’s decision to block a shipment of 250,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia in March.

Professor Evenett said the EU has become a victim of its relatively transparent approach to securing doses for its citizens – in comparison to the US, a virus hotspot which was expected to take an “America First” approach under Donald Trump, and India, which is currently engulfed in a severe outbreak.

“No one really expected the US to be a supplier of vaccines. And so when they didn’t supply vaccines, everyone’s expectations were confirmed,” he said.

Export controls in India could prove hugely damaging, he added, due to its role as a key vaccine producer.

Afghan health ministry workers unload boxes of vaccines  -  Rahmat Gul/ AP
Afghan health ministry workers unload boxes of vaccines - Rahmat Gul/ AP

“The developing world was counting on India to produce lots of their vaccines, so what’s happening is an absolute tragedy from that perspective as well,” he said.

Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics – a Washington DC-based think tank – said a lack of transparency about controls is another concern.

“Export restrictions are not good,” he said. “And they carry tremendous symbolic value. They have been not only increasing, but the non transparency with which they’re happening is important, as well.” He added: “We’ve never developed that same international framework and rule book that says, if you’re going to impose these things, you need to do it in a transparent way.”

Last week, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai threw her support behind a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, allowing pharmaceutical manufacturers to produce “copycat” medicines.

Mr Bown was sceptical that such a move would have a significant impact on the global vaccine supply.