Pacific trade ministers discussed ways to better recover from the pandemic at an online meeting hosted by New Zealand on Saturday.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum has long focused on dismantling trade barriers. The meeting of its trade ministers was called virtually, given the travel restrictions prevailing in the region as coronavirus epidemics erupt in many countries still struggling to obtain and deploy enough COVID-19 vaccines.
In a move that could ease delays in vaccine delivery more widely, New Zealand wants APEC’s 21 members to agree on “best practice guidelines” on the movement of vaccines across borders. and related medical products, a person familiar with the talks told Reuters.
The average tariff on vaccines is 0.8%, according to the APEC Secretariat. But duties on some other products such as freezing equipment, bottles and alcoholic solutions can reach 30 percent for some countries.
While the average price on vaccines is very low within APEC (only 0.8%), the prices are much higher for several products that are very important in the vaccine supply chain.
Patent control for vaccines has also proven to be a controversial issue.
The stakes are high: beyond the potential lives saved or lost, the trade in vaccines and related supplies and equipment was estimated at $ 418.5 billion in 2019, according to the latest available data, and has likely increased in 2020. .
“We need to ensure that trade plays a role in tackling the worst lingering effects of COVID-19 through open and unrestricted trade in vaccines, essential medical supplies and related products,” said Rachel Taulelei, President of the APEC Business Advisory Council.
In many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the share of people vaccinated so far is less than 10%. This includes places like Thailand and Taiwan which initially managed to avoid the first massive outbreaks but are now struggling with their worst outbreaks.
APEC members Japan, South Korea and New Zealand are ranked among the worst of all developed countries when it comes to vaccinating their populations against COVID-19, behind many developing countries like Brazil and India. Australia is also relatively underperforming.
This week, President Joe Biden announced that the United States will quickly give an initial allocation of 25 million doses of excess vaccine overseas under the United Nations-backed COVAX program, promising infusions for Asia. , South and Central America, Africa and others.
This would be a substantial and immediate boost to the lagging effort of COVAX, which to date has only shared 76 million doses with countries in need.
While some countries have at times restricted exports of vaccines, chemicals needed to manufacture them, or protective equipment such as surgical masks, it is not clear whether tariffs and other trade barriers have been the main issue since countries like Japan and New Zealand have imposed onerous approval requirements that have slowed vaccinations.
Even though the region is still in the midst of its worst wave of coronavirus outbreaks to date, economies in the Pacific Basin are expected to regain momentum this year, with growth rebounding to over 6% from a contraction of 1 , 9% in 2020.
APEC brings together 21 economies along the Pacific Rim, from tiny Brunei to the United States to Chile and New Zealand. One of its long-term goals is to promote an Asia-Pacific free trade area.