The World Trade Organization (WTO) has mapped critical inputs for the production of Covid-19 vaccines, in a bid to clarify complex supply chains for sourcing raw materials and components.

The organisation this week published an indicative list of 83 inputs, most of which cover the manufacturing of coronavirus jabs, but also those relevant to storage, distribution and administration.

It covers the vaccines produced by AstraZeneca, Janssen, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, including product details and their likely HS codes when exported.

The list was jointly produced with the Asian Development Bank, the OECD and the World Customs Organization, as well as representatives from the pharmaceutical industry, academia and logistics. It is subject to further modification and improvement depending on expert advice, the WTO says.

The exercise was carried out amid concerns over the rate of vaccine production.

In the WTO’s annual report for 2020, published this week, director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala points out that nearly 4 million people have lost their lives to the virus, with many millions more losing livelihoods or missing out on education.

“Even as vaccine production and roll-out gathers speed, the supply of doses remains far below what is needed,” she says. “Poorer countries are being left behind in vaccine access and economic prospects. People are dying even though the means exist to save them.”

The annual report says that in the first half of last year, global exports of certain raw materials widely used in vaccine production grew by 49%, to US$15.5bn in value.

But with vaccine production relying on highly complex value chains – the WTO says a typical vaccine manufacturing plant would use an estimated 9,000 different materials from 300 suppliers in 30 countries – there are concerns that trade-related restrictions could make it impossible to meet demand.

“In view of the complexity of raw material and component value chains and limited production capacity in many countries, export controls, border clearance and transit issues affecting the sourcing of imported raw materials and other essential components posed difficulties for scaling up vaccine manufacturing operations and ensuring equitable access,” the WTO says.

The report cites efforts to waive WTO rules on intellectual property, first put forward by government representatives of South Africa and India last year.

Under the proposals, companies around the world would be free to manufacture their own version of existing Covid-19 vaccines, reducing reliance on the output of a small number of major producers.

Negotiations have moved forward on a potential rules waiver, helped by US President Joe Biden declaring his support in a June speech, but significant barriers remain.

One concern is that complex supply chains could be disrupted by sudden changes in demand, requiring a multilateral and coordinated approach to upscaling production across the world.

The WTO’s annual report is non-committal on the proposal, stating only that “discussions have continued in 2021 in response to revised proposals submitted by WTO members”.

However, the organisation faces growing pressure from international bodies to speed up action on a global vaccine rollout.

“For some of us, it is a deja-vu,” said Dr Mariângela Batista Galvão Simão, assistant director-general for access to medicines and health products at the World Health Organization (WHO), speaking at a WTO symposium on June 29.

“The response to HIV should have been a lesson learned – it took more than 10 years for effective treatments to reach low- and middle-income countries,” she said. “In the HIV field, this delay cost tens of millions of lives.”