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What the pandemic taught us about international trade rules for health - and how we can make them better for the future

By Ben Lucas, Managing Director, MSD UK & Ireland, ABPI International and Intellectual Property Policy Board Sponsor

Policymakers from 164 countries will be travelling to Abu Dhabi in February next year for the 13th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization. There, governments will discuss the most important issues and challenges facing the global trading system, with the aim of making sure the rules that govern international goods and services are fit for purpose.

As a new report from Global Counsel shows, leaders have the opportunity to learn some important lessons from the pandemic about how we can safeguard global supply chains for vital medical goods – and move the debate on from rhetoric to action that delivers for patients.

The pharmaceutical industry agrees with a lot of what is in the report, and we urge governments to rise to the occasion and put forward a progressive, effective case for new rules for trade in health. The time is now to safeguard patient access to the medicines, vaccines, and diagnostics that they need, and finally draw to a close the evidence-free debate about intellectual property being a barrier in the fight against global health threats.

Making trade work better for health

There are several key recommendations in this new paper that we believe would deliver important changes to the WTO framework that support health in the context of trade, but I want to focus on three that I think are vital for any meaningful change:

  1. Commitments from WTO members to refrain from export restrictions. Our experience from the pandemic showed that, rather than supporting access to medical goods at a time when they were needed most, the introduction of export restrictions hindered global supply and seriously undermined coordination of supply chains.

In April 2020, WTO Members had 145 export restrictions in place – 60 of which remained for over a year. Agreement to review, eliminate and avoid export restrictions, whilst reserving the right to apply them to avoid a critical shortage, would be a positive development.

  1. The further elimination of tariffs, with increased international coverage. Although many finished pharmaceutical products, intermediaries and components face zero tariffs thanks to the WTO Pharma Agreement, this was last updated over a decade ago and does not capture some of the newest medical innovations that need to make their way through the global trade network to patients across the world.

According to the OECD, tariffs on vaccines exist in 22% countries, and the average tariff on their ingredients range from 2.6-9.4%. Eliminating these and encouraging more Member States to zero tariffs is vital to supporting trade in health products for the future.

  1. Building regulatory capacity around the world, through regulatory cooperation. Our sector is highly regulated, and rightly so. Cooperation between WTO members to share resources and help build regulatory capacity (where needed), improve manufacturing and quality standards, and build trust in health institutions in developing countries is vital to eliminating delays in patient access.

Where some Member States are yet to provide regulatory approval to COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics or diagnostics, whilst supporting the suspension of intellectual property rights, helping them to build regulatory capacity will make more of a difference to the availability of vital medical goods.

Changes such as these will not only help facilitate trade in health today but will better prepare us for future pandemics; learning directly from the bottlenecks and challenges that countries faced at the height of COVID-19 to eliminate delays before they even occur.

Concluding thoughts

At a time when some governments are intent on undermining parts of the WTO framework to pursue their own industrial strategy goals, it has never been more important to make meaningful improvements for people and patients around the world, and to defend the very bedrock of the global trading system.

Next year’s Ministerial Conference is a vital opportunity to learn the lessons from the pandemic, improve trade in health, and demonstrate how evidence-based policymaking can deliver a real difference to patients’ lives now and in the future.

  • Intellectual Property
  • Trade
  • International
  • WTO

Last modified: 06 December 2023

Last reviewed: 06 December 2023