Trade plays a critical role in ensuring access to medical goods and services during global health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is one of the key findings from a new World Trade Organization (WTO World Bank) publication launched by the WTO Director-General, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and the World Bank Managing Director Mari Pangestu at an online event on 3 June.
In her opening remarks, DG Okonjo-Iweala underlined the need for greater international cooperation to improve global health security.
“This report underscores how trade is a force for good in terms of enabling access to medical goods and services – but also points to where we can improve,” DG Okonjo-Iweala said. “It is a timely reminder, a week ahead of our 12th Ministerial Conference, of how trade is part of the solution to many of the big challenges of our time, whether in public health or the environment.”
The objective of the report is to help policymakers draw lessons for trade policy and international cooperation by examining trade and trade policies in medical goods and services before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A main lesson of the report is that trade plays an important role in ensuring access to medical goods and services both in normal times and, as the past two years have shown, in times of crisis,” DG Okonjo-Iweala added.
Highlighting the “unique role” that the WTO and the World Bank can play in leveraging trade to improve global health security, Mari Pangestu, the World Bank Managing Director of Development Policy and Partnerships, said: “We need greater trade openness – not economic nationalism. … The report being presented today highlights the crucial role of international trade in the COVID-19 pandemic response. … We need to work collectively to ensure that we can prepare for and respond more effectively to the next pandemic.”
The report stresses that open markets can increase access to medical services and goods – including the inputs needed to manufacture them, improve their quality and diversity, and reduce costs. Open trade, combined with government financial support, also spurred the innovation that led to the rapid development of vaccines during the COVID-19 crisis.
But excessive concentration of production, restrictive trade policies, supply chain disruptions and regulatory divergence can jeopardize the ability of public health systems to respond to pandemics and other health crises, the report finds. It also looks at how the international community can leverage the global trading system in the future to improve the collective response to global crises in the pursuit of global health security.
Also highlighted at the event were the experiences of Morocco and Indonesia in harnessing trade in medical goods and services to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking on behalf of Ryad Mezzour, Morocco’s Minister of Commerce and Industry, Abdelouahed Rahal, Director General of Trade at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, said: “Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Morocco has deployed various emergency actions to contain the crisis, adjusting its decision-making process based on the imperatives of public health and the need to revitalize the social and economic prospects of the country. Morocco welcomes the solidarity and cohesion shown by international institutions such as the WTO and the World Bank, and their active role in helping to mitigate the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Indonesia’s Deputy Minister of Health, Dr Dante Saksono Harbuwono, said: “Indonesia is committed to rearranging the global health architecture to include our cooperation in pandemic defence. … Going forward, we have to build a mechanism towards policy-making and resource mobilisation so that emergency medical countermeasures are accessible to all. … This report can help improve global essential health resource and manufacturing capacity by investing in what matters so as to minimise the socio-economic impact of a future pandemic.”
“This publication offers valuable insights into how trade in medical goods and services contributes to global health security,” said WTO Deputy Director-General Anabel González, who moderated the event. “And it puts forward pragmatic, concrete and forward-looking recommendations on how to leverage trade to be more prepared – and respond more effectively – next time a health crisis hits.”
Dr Mariângela Batista Galvão Simão, Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization and Thomas J. Bollyky, Director of the Global Health Program, also stressed the importance of international cooperation on trade to respond to the pandemic and strengthen defences against future crises.