Collaboration, innovation and free trade among countries will get us through this global crisis — Azrul Mohd Khalib

MAY 18 — No single country can go it alone in dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak within its borders without the support, assistance, and collaboration with its neighbours as well as with other governments around the world.

Of late, many countries are looking into failed protectionist policies of the past for solutions to the current crisis. New and old barriers are being re-established to address immediate shortages of medical supplies, medicines, and devices.

Very few countries are self-sufficient in these areas. International trade is therefore vital to ensure widespread access for the protective equipment, medical devices and medicines needed in this public health emergency. Most countries, including Malaysia, depend on trade partners such as South Korea, India, China and the United States for such products.

Measures which undermine international trade in such vital commodities should be rejected.

Governments must resist imposing import tariffs on medical supplies, especially during this global crisis. Nearly half of World Trade Organisation member states apply tariffs on medicines. The highest are Nepal (at 14.7 per cent), Pakistan (11.3 per cent), India (10 per cent) and Brazil (9.3 per cent). Even facemasks are not exempt, with countries such as Argentina and Brazil which have the highest tariffs on this vital commodity ranging from 17 to 55 per cent. Such measures are self-defeating.

Pakistan, Brazil, Columbia and Norway have gone in the opposite direction and shown leadership by exempting Covid-19 related medicines, vaccines and medical supplies from import duties and taxes altogether.

Governments should commit moving towards permanent tariff reductions on medical supplies, devices, medicines and vaccines.

By late April 2020, 80 countries and separate customs territories had instituted various export curbs on medical supplies related to Covid-19. While they may seem to secure access to existing stockpiles in the short term, export bans will eventually hurt the countries that impose them.

Medicines and medical supplies have global supply chains and are disrupted by these export bans. Even ventilators which are made from over 700 separate components, are sourced from various countries. Countries such as Malaysia have shown commendable commitment to ensuring that open supply chains on commodities such as latex gloves remain open, often in the face of massive domestic pressure to do otherwise.

To ease shortages of medical supplies, all countries should reject export curbs, bans and other trade-reducing measures.

Governments should also help the flow of essential Covid-related supplies by simplifying and accelerating customs procedures. Brazil for example, has granted priority customs clearance to goods used to combat Covid-19 and to reduce licensing requirements for surgical supplies.

Innovation is crucial to provide a long-term solution to the crisis, not just in developing the vaccine needed, but also in ensuring that it is able to be manufactured en masse and rapidly distributed throughout the world.

More than 140 experimental coronavirus treatments and vaccines are under development worldwide, including 11 in clinical trials. Another 254 clinical trials are underway for coronavirus treatments or vaccines derived from drugs already approved to treat other diseases. In recognition of its expertise, Malaysia has also been included in this worldwide effort.

Governments, industry, the philanthropic sector and academia must be able to collaborate freely across borders. Restricting such collaborations in the name of national security weakens global monitoring and undermines research and development by restricting access to key epidemiological and clinical data.

Malaysia is fortunate in the level of transparency and access to information and data provided to stakeholders and the public. However, not every government has acted in a similar manner in dealing with this crisis. Governments should commit to providing full, open, and accurate information and data to international public health organizations and share all relevant scientific information.

The process of getting marketing authorisation for a new medicine can often take many years, even when the product has already been declared safe and effective by a stringent regulatory authority such as the European Medicines Agency (EMA). To avoid duplication of oversight and unnecessary delays, regulatory authorities should cooperate across borders to consider the reviews and decisions made by bodies such as the EMA and US Food and Drug Administration. More lives can be saved with such an approach to oversight and approval.

Biopharmaceutical innovation will play a vital role in this crisis, both in the form of new treatments that can mitigate the worst of Covid-19 infection, and eventually a vaccine. The cornerstone of innovation is the intellectual property (IP) system which is working well in the pandemic. IP rights have facilitated cooperation and the sharing of proprietary data, know-how and technology between different and often competing organisations, both locally and internationally.

There is no evidence that IP rights will pose a barrier to access. Already, life sciences companies are searching their patent and molecular reference libraries for promising compounds.   Most companies working in this area have already stated any new products will be available on a non-profit basis.

Any measure that undermines IP rights, jeopardises innovation which is the lifeblood of global research and development of medicines. Governments should work with the private sector in the quest for Covid-19 treatments and vaccines.

Now is not the time for countries to look inwards. Only when countries are allowed to trade and collaborate freely with each other can this crisis be resolved and economies recover and heal. Implementing these measures will not only help us deal with Covid-19, it will help prepare the world for future pandemics.  

* Azrul Mohd Khalib is Chief Executive of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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