WTO: Market Access Committee updates WTO members on COVID-19 trade-related measures

At the formal meeting of the Committee on Market Access on 11 October, members were updated on trade-related measures related to COVID-19 and on the Joint Indicative List of Critical COVID-19 Vaccine Inputs compiled by the WTO Secretariat. Members also heard the report by the chair of the Committee, Mr Chakarin Komolsiri of Thailand, on the information session held on 21 September on quantitative restrictions (QRs) and their relation to the multilateral environmental agreements.

Members welcomed the revised summary report (G/MA/W/168/Rev.1) on export restrictions and prohibitions and trade-facilitating measures relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report seeks to compile and summarize the relevant information on export prohibitions and restrictions that have been notified by members under the 2012 Decision on Notification Procedures for Quantitative Restrictions (QR Decision), the communications notified to the Committee with information on trade-facilitating measures as well as other measures by WTO members collected as part of the WTO’s Trade Monitoring Exercise and listed in “COVID-19: Measures affecting trade in goods”.

The WTO Secretariat reported that as of 4 October 2021, a total of 77 measures that prohibit or restrict exports as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic had been adopted by members. The majority of these export-restrictive measures took the form of full bans and prohibitions (38.3%), followed by export restrictions in the form of non-automatic export licences (22.2%) and conditional prohibitions (17.3%). The vast majority of measures prohibiting and restricting exports were introduced between February and April 2020 (57 out of 77 measures). This period coincides with the declaration of a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 March 2020 and the consequent lockdowns and other health measures imposed by members in response to COVID-19.

The majority of measures prohibited or restricted the exportation of personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes face and eye protection devices (36 measures), protective garments (24 measures) and gloves (22 measures). Other restricted products included sanitizers and disinfectants, such as alcohol (22 measures), pharmaceutical products (21 measures), medical equipment, including mechanical respirators (13 measures) and different types of medical supplies (13 measures). It would appear that almost half of the export prohibitions and restrictions (41%), both notified as QRs and those in the Trade Monitoring Exercise, continued to be in force by 4 October 2021. The remaining measures seem to have expired as initially indicated (30%) or a  notification was submitted informing that the measure had been terminated (29%).

“We now have a more accurate picture of the situation,” the chair said. He noted that the additional information coming from the Trade Monitoring Exercise has contributed to providing a more complete picture. However, given that information from the Trade Monitoring Exercise is subject to further verification by members, he encouraged delegations to promptly notify the relevant measures to the Committee.  Members thanked the Secretariat for its work on compiling information and asked it to continue updating this report on a regular basis and to complement the analysis with trade data.

The Committee also addressed document G/MA/QR/11 entitled “Status of Notifications under the Decision on Notification Procedures for Quantitative Restrictions”, which  summarizes the status of QR notifications as of 4 October 2021. The document notes that the situation has slightly improved with respect to previous years, in particular for the periods 2018-2020 and 2020-2022. The submission of notifications relating to COVID-19 restrictions explains partly this increase, but the overall compliance with the QR notification requirement remains relatively low, the chair said.

While the number and quality of notifications has improved over the past years, the vast majority of members have not provided information on the full list of QRs they maintain. The chair encouraged members to contact the Secretariat in case they need technical assistance to comply with this important transparency provision. Additional tools and resources, such as the QR database or the organization of training sessions, also play an important role in improving notification compliance.

The WTO Secretariat also presented the Joint Indicative List of Critical COVID-19 Vaccine Inputs, which was developed in collaboration with the World Customs Organization (WCO) and other organizations. The list includes very detailed product and tariff classification information in four areas: inputs needed for vaccine manufacturing; products needed for vaccine storage and distribution; products needed for vaccine administration; and other vaccine-related supplies and equipment. This report explores the most-favoured nation (MFN) tariffs and imports of COVID-19 vaccine inputs by the 27 top vaccine manufacturing economies in order to identify possible sensitive areas or “choke points”.

This list was one of the stepping stones in preparing  the updated version of the “Indicative list of trade-related bottlenecks and trade-facilitating measures on critical products to combat COVID-19”, which was published on 8 October 2021. This revised version is based on issues identified and suggestions made by stakeholders as well as by vaccine manufacturers in the context of meetings organized by the Multilateral Leaders Task Force on COVID-19.

Members were also informed about the official launch on 7 October of the HS Tracker. This application was developed in collaboration with the WCO. Its main goal is to allow users to track the changes of headings or subheadings across different versions of the Harmonized System, the system used to classify traded goods, including the upcoming HS2022.

QRs and the multilateral environmental agreements

The chair reported on the information session on QRs and their relation to multilateral environmental agreements held on 21 September. The information session involved five separate sessions. In Session 1, members were informed about the main rules and procedures relating to QRs, in particular Article XI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 and the notification requirements under the 2012 Decision. The two additional Secretariat tools with information on QRs and trade-related environmental measures — the WTO Environmental Database and the document entitled “Multilateral Environmental Agreements Matrix” — were the subject of Session 2.

In Session 3, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) talked about the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, what these conventions cover and what their latest amendments contain as well as how they link to trade. In Session 4, a representative of the WCO explained how products covered by these environmental agreements are classified according to the Harmonized System (HS) and what changes will be implemented in the HS2022 nomenclature to incorporate the latest developments in environmental conventions. Finally, in Session 5, representatives from Canada, Colombia, Georgia and Mauritius shared their experience with the preparation of the QR notifications.

From the presentations and information shared, the chair said, it was evident that WTO members implement trade restrictions or prohibitions to pursue a number of different policy objectives, such as the protection of the environment. Therefore, it is key that members are able to ensure transparency about these measures by notifying them to the WTO. Members observed that it was difficult to obtain information on HS codes related to QRs and reported that this represents one of the main hurdles for the preparation of QR notifications.

In this respect, the WCO “interconnection tables” with information on HS codes covered by various international conventions can be an invaluable tool for members wishing to notify QRs in relation to these conventions and they could also be linked in the QR database. This will allow members to search directly for the products and tariff codes covered under each convention and to include them in the QR notification format. This is another functionality that the Secretariat is exploring for inclusion in the QR database.

Transparency proposal

The Committee heard an update on the proposal on transparency in applied tariff rate changes for the 12th Ministerial Conference to be held on 30 November – 3 December. Raised at the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session, the proposal is supported by Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union and Ukraine.

The text aims at enhancing predictability in the application of applied tariff rates and the treatment of shipments en route. The proposal compiles an inventory of current practices when an applied tariff rate changes, outlines potential issues that arise when an applied tariff rate changes and proposes voluntary options to enhance predictability in applied tariff rates.

One member took the floor to stress that changes in applied MFN tariffs can be regularly notified through the Integrated Database (IDB). They are also reflected in the WTO trade monitoring reports. It did not support any additions to what it considered an ever-growing list of obligations that seek to circumscribe members’ negotiated rights under the WTO agreements.

Trade concerns

The Committee addressed 21 trade concerns, new and previously raised, including:

  • Angola’s import restricting practices, raised by the European Union, the United States and the Russian Federation
  • Canada’s restriction on the commercial importation of cannabis and cannabis products for medical use, raised by Colombia
  • China’s trade disruptive and restrictive measures, raised by Australia
  • The European Union’s carbon border adjustment mechanism, raised by China and the Russian Federation
  • The selective tax on certain imported products by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar, raised by the EU, Switzerland and the United States
  • India’s standards and import restrictions in the automotive sector (quality orders): wheel rims, safety class, helmets, raised by Indonesia
  • India’s plain copier paper quality order 2020, raised by Indonesia
  • India’s quantitative restrictions on imports of certain pulses, raised by Australia, Canada, the European Union, the United States and the Russian Federation
  • India’s import policies on tyres, raised by the European Union and Indonesia
  • India’s import restriction on air conditioners, raised by Japan
  • India’s import policies on tyres, television sets, and air conditioners, raised by Thailand
  • Indonesia’s import substitution programme, raised by the European Union
  • Indonesia’s customs duties on certain telecommunication products, raised by the United States
  • Mexico’s import quota on glyphosate, raised by the United States
  • Nepal’s import ban on energy drinks, raised by Thailand
  • The Russian Federation’s export prohibition on timber products, raised by the European Union
  • The Russian Federation’s discriminatory application of value added taxes, raised by the United States
  • The Russian Federation’s track and trace regime, raised by the United States
  • Sri Lanka’s import ban on various products, raised by Australia, the European Union and Thailand
  • Sri Lanka’s import on palm oil, raised by Indonesia
  • The United Kingdom’s renegotiation of tariff rate quotas under Article XXVIII of the GATT 1994, raised by the Russian Federation.

Next meetings

The next informal meeting has been scheduled for 9 December 2021. For next year, formal meetings of the Committee are currently scheduled to take place on 30 and 31 March 2022, and 18 and 19 October 2022. Informal Committee meetings are scheduled to take place on 1 February, 27 June and 23 November 2022.


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