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News Article

Import Processes Get in the Way of Fighting COVID-19

By Miriam Bello | Tue, 07/27/2021 - 09:56

Trade regulations meant to protect consumers might be backfiring in the fight against COVID-19 says a recent report by WTO. These bottlenecks could cause delays in production and distribution that might put human lives at risk.

Vaccine production faces many hurdles from the get go. Inputs for vaccine manufacture are subjected to regular import and export procedures, which include rigorous documentation requirements and the frequent renewal of licenses and certificates, warns the WTO. Differences in regulatory frameworks, procedures and timelines adds further complexity for manufacturers, as they have to comply different data and legal requirements depending of the regulatory agency.

The different requirements of each regulatory agency also represent a hurdle for therapeutic and pharmaceutical good targeted to treat COVID-19 patients, “different technical requirements on the same product between countries, such as the more common fill volume of 3.5 ml versus 3.51 ml in some countries, or the sterilization of injectable products required by terminal sterilization in some countries versus by aseptic processing in other countries,” reads the report.

While some regions put in place special procedures to expedite the transportation of personal protection equipment (PPE), medical equipment and vaccines themselves, raw materials for vaccine manufacture do not benefit from the “green channels” or other simplified or expedited procedures. Samples for testing are also subject to the same import and export procedures as commercial shipments, including export restrictions, which can delay or prevent the release of manufacturing batches for distribution.

Moreover, since donations of supplies and vaccines (for example to COVAX) are not commercial transactions, they can be subject to more stringent controls and may result in tariffs and internal taxes or longer exemption processes, which can cause delays and increased costs.

Also, applied tariffs can remain high in many countries, thereby making it costly to import essential therapeutics to treat COVID-19 patients. Diagnostics and other medical devices must often duplicate of rigorous local testing, which can lead to further delays and uncertainty for suppliers. The WTO also said that an unclear process for regulatory approval of diagnostics can lead to diagnostics of varying quality. Inefficient and overly complex regulatory systems slow down activation of clinical trials and hamper the adoption of results.

Furthermore, a report by VoxEU found that many developing countries tax their own health care systems by imposing tariffs on imports of medical products. Such measures increase the domestic price of essential products, and thus reduce welfare even further. Applied import tariffs on key COVID-19 products in developing countries with the highest number of cases are on average over 6 percent. Personal protection equipment products such as aprons, medical masks and protective clothing are subject to tariffs of over 10 percent. Severely affected countries such as Iran impose even higher import restrictions of key COVID-19 products, especially for personal protection equipment. Mexico imposes a significant import tax to personal protection items like nitrile and sterile gloves, protection googles and heavy-duty aprons.

During the Aid for Trade event in 2021, WTO’s Director General Okonjo-Iweala said that more trade cooperation is needed to address supply bottlenecks, lower regulatory hurdles, facilitate trade and finance vaccine purchases. “Keeping global markets open is essential for a strong and sustained recovery. The organizations and Members that have cooperated on the Aid for Trade initiative have made a huge difference in peoples' lives.”

Miriam Bello Miriam Bello Journalist and Industry Analyst