By Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON, Feb 22 (Reuters) - New Zealand will use itsplatform as host of an Asia-Pacific trade group in coming monthsto seek a global approach to coronavirus vaccinations that wouldeliminate tariffs on goods needed to fight COVID-19.
Amid concerns that smaller nations may be left behind invaccinating their populations, New Zealand - one of the mostsuccessful countries in curbing the pandemic - will make theproposals at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum,which it will host virtually this year.
"Our message is that to deal with a global pandemic likethis we need more global participation," said Vangelis Vitalis,New Zealand's deputy secretary for trade and economy, who chairsthe APEC2021 Senior Officials’ Meeting.
"Trade is not going to solve the crisis but trade can help,"he told Reuters in an interview.
New Zealand proposes making shipments between the 21 APECmembers of medicines, medical and surgical equipment, hygieneproducts an other goods tariff-free and easing otherrestrictions on their movement across borders.
The proposal would have to agreed on in the next couple ofweeks to get approved at the APEC trade ministers' meeting inMay, Vitalis said.
Some APEC nations committed last year to keeping COVID-19supply chains open and removing trade restrictions on essentialgoods, especially medical supplies. But there has been no firmaction since.
Only New Zealand and Singapore took this further,eliminating tariffs on more than 120 products they deemedessential.
"It's worrying that only two small countries have donethat," Vitalis said. New Zealand wants a ministerial statementlisting pandemic-essential products and services, he said.
It would also ease the movement of coronavirus vaccinesthrough air and sea ports, which has been a growing concern amidsmaller nations like New Zealand who fear larger economies willbuy up and control medical supplies.
Despite efforts by the World Health Organization to ensuresmaller nations get their share of vaccines, experts say richernations have been hoarding vaccines and essential goods, leavingpoorer and smaller nations at their mercy for these products.
New Zealand began vaccinating border workers on Saturday,but most of the country's 5 million people are not expected toget inoculated until the second half of the year.
Vitalis said "vaccine nationalism," which Prime MinisterJacinda Ardern warned against last month, is in no one'sinterest.
Mutation risks mean a need to avoid "parts of the globalpopulation not vaccinated," he said.
Although vaccine tariffs are low, there are significantcharges on equipment like syringes, needles and gloves, whichmay impede the inoculation process.
The consensus-based APEC has struggled to reach agreementsin recent years amid then-President Donald Trump's trade warwith China. Joe Biden, who succeeded Trump last month, haspromised a more multilateral approach but is not expected torush into trade deals with Beijing.
The trade-dependent host nation "would like to see APEC gobroader on trade liberalisation, but we have to be realistic onwhat is achievable this year," said Alan Bollard, the NewZealand-based former executive director of the APEC Secretariatin Singapore.
"COVID-19 is an immediate concern - addressing it is also achance to ride over ongoing trade barriers," said Bollard, aformer head of New Zealand's central bank.(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by William Mallard)