Asia Pacific trade ministers have agreed to speed up the flow and transit of Covid-19 vaccines by digitising trade documents and urging against non-tariff barriers that restrict the movement of such goods.

The ways in which vaccine rollouts can be accelerated through policy were discussed during a virtual meeting of trade ministers from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) trade group on June 4-5.

“We know trade must be at the heart of our health response and economic recovery,” said Damien O’Connor, New Zealand’s trade minister, who chaired the meeting. “We agreed a set of guidelines for customs authorities to help fast track vaccines and related goods through ports and airports, for example, by digitising paperwork required at the border.”

Imports of vaccines will have advanced electronic processing to enable immediate release upon arrival, reveals a joint statement by the ministers. They also agreed to boost “co-ordination between traders and border agencies”.

Additionally, when it comes to the transit of vaccines and related goods, the leaders emphasised that economies should not allow needless restrictions.

“We also agreed to take action on unnecessary barriers to services, such as freight and logistics, which support the movement of essential Covid-19 goods across borders,” added O’Connor.

Export restrictions on vaccines became a cause for concern earlier this year as powers in the West squabbled over doses. In January, the EU set out a plan to control Covid-19 vaccine exports, including requiring vaccine makers holding contracts with the bloc to have authorisation to export.

“Going forward the critical question is whether other governments will impose export control regimes on Covid-19 vaccines, related or essential goods, or take other trade restrictive or punitive measures in response,” Simon Evenett, trade policy analyst and MBA director at the University of St Gallen, wrote in a note on Global Trade Alert at the time.

Countries around the globe have been ramping up their restrictions on the trade of medical goods since coronavirus spread around the world at the start of last year. In the second quarter of 2020 when curbs were at their peak, 137 restrictions on foreign shipments of medical goods and medicines imposed by 72 nations were in force.


Reforming trade

The Asia Pacific ministers also stated they would support the World Trade Organization (WTO) in modernising trade rules for the 21st century.

“Having certainty in trade more broadly is also crucial in these uncertain times. I’m pleased we were able to reaffirm our commitment to the multilateral trading system and the positive role that the WTO can play in solving global problems,” said O’Connor.

At the end of May, G7 trade ministers also issued a joint release restating their commitment to reshaping the WTO and building a global trading system that is not weakened by unfair trade practices.

Both the G7 and Asia Pacific trade ministers have called for stronger international rules on market-distorting subsidies that “undermine” a level playing field. The Asia Pacific leaders added that they are concerned about subsidies that have a negative environmental impact, for example in the fossil fuels sector.

During his speech, O’Connor also backed a vaccine rights waiver. “Economies will work proactively and urgently at the WTO to ensure trade rules can be deployed to combat the pandemic, such as temporarily removing intellectual property protections for vaccines,” he said.

A waiver on Covid-19 vaccine rights was supported by the US last month in an effort to boost supplies. However, the EU and vaccine makers have largely opposed the measure and say that it would have little impact on increasing inoculation volumes.

Nevertheless, leaders at the WTO and International Finance Corporation disagree and last month called for the manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines across Africa – a continent with a significantly lower proportion of its population vaccinated compared with Europe or the Americas.