Countries around the world are taking a variety of measures to ensure adequate access to and supplies of medical goods to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent Congressional Research Service report examines some of these actions, including the following.
Imposing Export Restrictions. The European Union has introduced measures that prohibit the export of personal protective equipment (e.g., masks, protective glasses, and garments) without prior regulatory approval. India has restricted exports of 26 pharmaceutical components as well as medicines and vitamins made from them. Dozens of other countries have also imposed export restrictions to address potential supply shortages. The U.S. has generally not supported such measures, but it is unclear whether they are inconsistent with World Trade Organization rules or may qualify for one of the available exceptions regarding critical shortages of essential products, protection of human life, or national security.
Reducing Tariffs. The U.S. has removed some of its Section 301 tariffs on medical goods from China, but the Trump administration has come under pressure to remove or suspend others as well. The report points out that Congress could potentially do this itself since it has the constitutional authority to “lay and collect duties.” Another option would be for the administration to permit duty-free imports of food, clothing, and medical, surgical, and other supplies for use in emergency relief work under Section 318 of the Tariff Act of 1930.
Revising Import Procedures. Most countries regulate imports of medical goods for public health and safety reasons, but some have taken steps to streamline their customs procedures to address issues that could delay access to medical goods. For example, China created a “green lane” system that prioritizes the inspection and review of imported medical goods. Similarly, the EU recently introduced guidelines instructing its member states to create “green lanes” for freight transport to ensure access to essential products such as medicines and medical equipment.
The U.S. has not yet publicly proposed amending its customs or other regulatory procedures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection may be able to create a “green lane” system using its congressional authorization to develop and implement screening and targeting capabilities, including prioritizing of passengers and cargo. The report notes that creating such a system may require CBP to complete a rulemaking process, which could take time, but that Congress could consider using its constitutional authority to regulate foreign commerce to more quickly implement new customs prioritization procedures.
Prioritizing Domestic Production. Many countries import more health-related products than they export. As an alternative to reliance on cross-border supply chains, the U.S. and some of its trading partners have sought to prioritize domestic production of necessary goods, either by requiring manufacturers to complete orders of medical goods before orders of non-medical goods or by imposing increased production requirements on these manufacturers. Such measures may be permitted under WTO rules provided (a) they are not unlawful subsidies (e.g., those that harm the industries of other WTO members) under the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures or (b) if they are potentially WTO-inconsistent, they fall within an exception.