GENEVA (Reuters) -The head of the World Trade Organization said on Monday that trade barriers related to medical supplies used against COVID-19 had risen and urged member states to drop them, as it intensified efforts to reach a deal on vaccine-sharing.
“The trend is going in the wrong direction,” WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told a virtual U.N. forum, referring to barriers on goods trade related to the pandemic.
“We need to bring those restrictions down so we can move … medical goods and supplies and vaccines (faster).”
She said the number of trade restrictions reported by WTO member states was 109 at the start of the pandemic early last year, and had later fallen to 51 but had since risen to 53, without giving a time-frame.
One such measure is the European Union’s export authorisation scheme for COVID-19 vaccines, which is set to expire on 30 June. Okonjo-Iweala has previously said she is “disappointed” by the scheme although the Commission has said it is targeted, proportionate and temporary.
Another way to ease trade flows might be a “voluntary monitoring system” to identify and remove supply bottlenecks, she added, saying the WTO was in talks with manufacturers and the International Chamber of Commerce and other partners about setting this up.
At the same event, she called on WTO members to reach a deal by July on improving access to COVID-19 vaccines after months of talks on waiving drug firms’ intellectual property rights. Most developing countries support the waiver but several wealthy countries remain strongly opposed, saying it will deter research that allowed COVID-19 vaccines to be produced so quickly.
“I’m in a hurry and I want us to get some agreement by July because lives are important,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
The former Nigerian finance minister also commented on a WTO ministerial conference next month that will aim to strike a deal on cutting fisheries subsidies, saying she still saw “serious differences” between countries.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey, Mark Heinrich and Giles Elgood)