Protectionist drug policies ease as global export bans fall since 2020
India started relaxing its export bans and resumed exports of some COVID-19 vaccines earlier than expected in October, starting with Indian pharmaceutical company Hetero Biopharma Limited (Hyderabad, India) exporting doses of Gamaleya Federal Research Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology (Moscow, Russia) Sputnik Light to Russia. Other exports are expected soon (EMOR, September 2021).
These exports reverse India’s policy since April 2021 to refuse to export COVID-19 vaccines so that the country can vaccinate its national population, which is severely affected by the Delta variant (India’s Second Wave Causing Severe Global COVID Vaccine Supply Chain Disruption, EMOR, June 2021). As recently as August, the head of the Indian government’s National Immunization Technical Advisory Group said the country would not resume COVID-19 vaccine exports until 2022.
Protectionist policies made it difficult for some countries at the height of the pandemic to treat and contain the spread of infection, as drugs and personal protective equipment (PPE) were more difficult to come by. Governments have imposed at least 47 export bans on pharmaceuticals in 2020 and at least six in 2019, according to the Global Trade Alerts database and GlobalData research. This list is not exhaustive and includes PPE and medical devices. The uncertainty of the pandemic and political pressures caused by panicked populations, along with supply chain and manufacturing issues and the increased need for certain drugs, have resulted in an unusually high level of product export bans. and drugs designed to prevent infection or treat COVID patients until supply chains are able to adjust to the large change in demand.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), described the pandemic as “the biggest challenge facing the trading system today”. Speaking at the BIO Digital conference in June 2021 in an online opening keynote “Breaking Barriers in Trade”, she said “the global trade in medical supplies and equipment [rose] 16% and trade in protective equipment [rose] 50% lately. After the initial supply chain disruption, the system became resilient and began to function.
The WTO has encouraged member countries to reduce export restrictions during the pandemic. While many restrictions are now being removed, there are still far too many, Okonjo-Iweala said. Okonjo-Iweala continued, 80% of vaccines produced are exported from 10 countries, which has led to trade vulnerability where countries keep vaccines to themselves.
Drug export bans are rarely implemented, but in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic for many countries, they became commonplace with the imposition of at least 47 export bans . Norway and the UK have applied the highest number of export bans, 14 and 8, respectively. Far fewer – at least six – took place globally in 2019, mostly in the UK. Two of them were lifted in the same year: the ban on the export of alogliptin / metformin to the United Kingdom (which was intended to alleviate the shortages) and the ban on the import and export of products to Pakistan. The treatments from India lasted only a few weeks, the latter part of a larger trade war between the two countries linked to a dispute over Kashmir. The majority of export bans in 2020 were related to COVID-19 and involved a wide variety of products used to combat COVID-19, including drugs like hydroxychloroquine (when this was seen as a promising therapy), surgical masks, pneumococcal vaccines, medical protective clothing, disinfectants and ventilators. In 2021, far fewer additional export bans were put in place as manufacturers increased the scale of production of items such as ventilators and masks, and COVID vaccination programs in many countries are now at an advanced stage, reducing rates of severe infection.