WTO issues updated note on trade in medical goods in the context of tackling COVID-19

The WTO Secretariat has updated the information note on trade in medical goods in the context of tackling COVID-19, which was first issued in April 2020, a few months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern. The update presents the developments in the trade in medical goods over the three-year period from 2019, when the SARS-CoV-2 virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic was first identified, through to the end of 2021.

The updated note points out that total imports and exports of medical goods were valued at US$ 2,028 billion in 2019 and grew to US$ 2,654 billion in 2021, with a yearly growth rate of 14.4 per cent.

In 2019, before the pandemic, the medical goods sector comprised 5.3 per cent of total world trade. This share increased to 6.6 per cent in 2020 and was at 5.9 per cent in 2021.

The dominance of the United States and Europe in the global trade of medical goods remained unchallenged even if, for certain less technology-intensive products, there was a shift to the Asian region.

Ventilators, test kits, face masks and rubber gloves, among other COVID-19-critical products, registered double-digit growth rates in 2020. However, trade in ventilators and face masks slowed in 2021.

Most-favoured-nation (MFN) tariffs applied to medical goods are relatively low, at around 4 per cent, and they even slightly decreased during the pandemic. However, the average tariff for personal protective products (PPPs) remained quite substantial.

The information note is part of the information note series on “Trade in medical goods in the context of tackling COVID-19”, which gives semestral updates and comparisons with previous years.

The original report was “Trade in medical goods in the context of tackling COVID-19“, issued on 3 April 2020, with the updates issued on 22 December 202030 June 2021 and 14 December 2021.

The updated note is available here.

Key points:

  • Total imports and exports of medical goods were valued at US$ 2,028 billion in 2019 and grew to US$ 2,654 billion in 2021, with a yearly growth rate of 14.4 per cent.
  • Before the pandemic, the medical goods sector comprised 5.3 per cent of total world trade in 2019. This share increased to 6.6 per cent in 2020 and was at 5.9 per cent in 2021.
  • The dominance of the United States and Europe in the global trade of medical goods remained unchallenged even if, for certain less technology-intensive products, there was a shift to the Asian region. The export share of Asia in personal protective products (PPPs) grew from 35 per cent in 2019 to 51 per cent in 2020.
  • In 2020, world exports of PPPs rose by 44.6 per cent, while China’s exports of PPPs grew by 208 per cent.
  • Europe remained a net exporter of medical goods throughout the three-year period, while other regions were mostly net importers.  Asia was a net exporter in 2020, mainly spurred by the growth in exports of PPPs.
  • Ventilators, test kits, face masks and rubber gloves, among other COVID-19-critical products, registered double-digit growth rates in 2020. However, trade in ventilators and face masks slowed in 2021.
  • Applied most-favoured-nation (MFN) tariffs on medical goods were relatively low, at around 4 per cent, and even slightly decreased between 2019 and 2021. However, the average tariff for PPPs remained quite substantial, at about 10 per cent. Textile face masks, which became the ubiquitous symbol of the pandemic, were levied at between 25 and 40 per cent by some WTO members.

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