Article Title

The WTO and Pandemics


The COVID-19 pandemic presented the world with a once-in-a-century public health challenge. At the height of the pandemic, measures to curb the disease shut down large swaths of the global economy while worldwide demand for international trade in medical products to fight the pandemic increased, as did dependence on global supply chains to source medical products. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has played an important role in ensuring transparency and market access for trade in medical goods despite the political, legal, and logistical difficulties COVID-19 and the rise of protectionism presented. However, the WTO is positioned to do more by taking a more active role in securing the movement of medicines and medical supplies in this and future pandemics. The WTO is in need of a revised, twenty-first century mandate. The world has changed not only since the Bretton Woods framework was set up in 1947, but also since the conclusion of the Uruguay Round negotiations that led to the establishment of the WTO on January 1, 1995. This public health challenge can help the WTO reassert and refine its mission at a time when its trade negotiations have been largely moribund and its dispute settlement mechanism under attack. It is significant that the WTO’s new Director General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was previously the Chair of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI) and has made vaccine production and distribution a priority for the WTO. On June 15, 2021, the Directors General of the WTO, World Health Organization (WHO), and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) met to agree on further strengthened cooperation for access to medical technologies to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. This essay will explain briefly how the WTO, as a member-driven institution, has evolved and the challenges it faces that predate the COVID-19 pandemic. It then looks at some of the WTO mechanisms and actions that have already played a role during the COVID-19 pandemic and finally will discuss the potential future role for WTO in cases of future pandemics.