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Press releases

Taking learnings from the pandemic to improve global trade rules for health

Ben Lucas, Managing Director, UK & Ireland

Ben Lucas, Managing Director, UK & Ireland | MSD

3 min read Partner content

The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) annual Ministerial Conference is just a fortnight away.
Policymakers from 164 countries will be in Abu Dhabi to discuss the most important issues
facing the global trading system. Ben Lucas, Managing Director at MSD in the UK and Ireland,
writes about the opportunity to improve global trade rules to benefit patients around the world

The WTO Ministerial Conference (MC-13) is a critical opportunity for governments to learn from the pandemic, and make global trade rules that work more effectively for health products; through evidence-led policymaking that delivers a real difference to people and patients. 

The discourse around intellectual property (IP)

The trade and health agenda has been dominated in recent years by a narrow discourse around intellectual property (IP) rights and waivers, and we must find a way to pivot from this limited debate, towards productive actions that support health objectives, including in pandemics.  

The UK’s evidence-based approach to discussions at the WTO has been encouraging, and one that other governments should seek to emulate. Their conclusion regarding the fundamental role that IP played in tackling the pandemic, is welcomed by the global pharmaceutical industry.  

IP underpins the biopharmaceutical innovation model and is central to sustaining key parts of the system, including academic research centres, biotechs, and large innovators. Strong IP frameworks are fundamental to drive innovation, essential for successful R&D and manufacturing partnerships, and key to investment. The UK recognises this, and their voice will continue to be crucial in negotiations at the WTO; such leadership on the global stage is imperative.  

The opportunity for a trade and health agreement 

In the wake of the pandemic, there are many lessons to be learnt from our collective experiences in responding to health crises, safeguarding supply chains for vital medical goods, and ensuring equitable access across the world. The government’s Critical Imports and Supply Chains Strategy published last month is a positive development, and acknowledges the importance of international collaboration to maintain supply chain resilience. We urge governments to put forward a progressive, effective case for new rules for trade in health, and focus on what can really improve our ability to tackle future pandemic threats. In summary: 

  1. WTO members must commit to refrain from export restrictions which hinder global supply chains, and agree to review, eliminate and avoid export restrictions, whilst reserving the right to apply them to avoid critical shortages. 
  2. Unlike finished medicines, active ingredients (APIs) and intermediates that are used to manufacture medicines, do not automatically qualify for zero tariffs under the WTO Pharma Agreement and must be formally added to the list of eligible products. This WTO list hasn’t been updated since 2010, meaning that many APIs used to produce the newest innovations may be subject to import tariffs. Further eliminating tariffs is vital to supporting trade in health products for the future. 
  3. Regulatory cooperation between WTO members to share resources and help build regulatory capacity around the world, improve manufacturing and quality standards, and build trust in health institutions in developing countries is vital to eliminating delays in patient access. 

MC-13 is a vital opportunity to make meaningful improvements, such as these, to facilitate trade in health today and better prepare us for future pandemics. We urge the UK to work with global partners on moving away from rhetoric to action, towards a more constructive trade and health agenda.  

We must work together to safeguard patient access to the medicines, vaccines, and diagnostics that they need. An important step towards that goal is ending the evidence-free debate about IP being a barrier in the fight against global health threats, and advancing a robust trade and health agenda at MC-13. 

For more information visit MSD on 

GB-NON-08864 MSD has provided funding for this segment. 

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