Asia-Pacific trade ministers mull vaccine access, supply

BANGKOK (AP) — Improved access to coronavirus vaccines and other tools needed to fight the pandemic are vital to crushing the pandemic and hastening a recovery, officials said Saturday in an online meeting of Pacific Rim economies.

The unprecedented crisis brought on by COVID-19 requires a coordinated, cooperative response, said New Zealand’s Trade and Export Growth Minister Damien O’Connor, who hosted the meeting. The 21-member APEC gathers economies all along the Pacific Rim, from tiny Brunei to the United States to Chile and New Zealand. One of its long-term aims is to promote a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific region.

The focus Saturday was on “the most pressing problem our region faces, getting people vaccinated against COVID-19 as quickly as possible,” O’Connor said, adding he would be asking his counterparts how they could speed up trade in vaccines and other needed goods.

“The successful distribution of vaccines across our region will be critical to our recovery,” he said.

APEC has long focused on dismantling trade barriers, and many of its members are still struggling to obtain and deploy enough COVID-19 vaccines to vanquish coronavirus flare-ups.

Nearly 5 billion doses are still needed for the region of almost 3 billion people, O’Connor noted.

In much of the Asia-Pacific region, the share of people vaccinated so far is in the low single digits. That includes places like Thailand and Taiwan that initially managed to avoid initial massive outbreaks but have seen cases rebound recently.

APEC members Japan, South Korea and New Zealand are ranked among the worst among all developed nations in vaccinating their people for COVID-19, below some developing countries such as Brazil and India. Australia is also performing comparatively poorly.

This week, President Joe Biden announced the U.S. will swiftly donate an initial allotment of 25 million doses of surplus vaccine overseas through the United Nations-backed COVAX program, promising infusions for Asia, South and Central America, Africa and others.

That would be a substantial and immediate boost to the lagging COVAX effort, which to date has shared just 76 million doses with needy countries.

While some countries at times have limited exports of vaccines, chemicals needed to make them or of protective equipment such as surgical masks, it’s unclear whether tariffs and other trade barriers have been the main problem since countries like Japan and New Zealand imposed onerous approval requirements that have slowed inoculations.

The average tariff on vaccines is a low 0.8%, according to the APEC Secretariat. But duties on some other products such as freezing equipment, vials and alcohol solutions can be as high as 30% for some countries.

Control of patents for the vaccines is a contentious issue. The U.S. has urged countries and pharmaceutical companies to waive COVID-19 patents to help increase supplies, and officials said they expected to discuss that issue during their talks this weekend.

But some say such intellectual property rights are crucial for boosting vaccine production and should not be waived.

A broad waiver of such rights requires a consensus under World Trade Organization rules, O’Connor said.

“We’re very mindful that the development of the intellectual property is what’s enabled us to very quickly get vaccines developed, in a time we previously haven’t seen across the globe,” he said. “We have to respect that intellectual property.”

These are “extraordinary times,” O’Connor said. “We believe if there clearly are barriers to the rollout of vaccines caused by IP, then we should seek a waiver.”

“We’re actually really encouraged to see more WTO members come forth with proposals on what they can support at the WTO with respect to the intellectual property rules of the WTO and how they apply to the COVID vaccine,” said U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

She said the U.S. was carefully reviewing proposals on the issue and hoping to move toward “text-based negotiations.”

At a vaccine summit last month, the head of the WTO said it was also crucial to diversify manufacturing and have more jabs produced in Africa and Latin America.

Much is at stake. Beyond potential lives saved or lost, trade in vaccines and related supplies and equipment was estimated at $418.5 billion in 2019, according to the latest available data, and likely surged in 2020.

The APEC meeting additionally focused on “building back better” by reallocating resources to improve health care, education and social safety nets.

Even with the region still staggering from the pandemic and tourism still paralyzed by quarantines and border restrictions, Pacific Rim economies are forecast to regain momentum this year, with growth rebounding to more than 6% from a 1.9% contraction in 2020.