The protective and medical equipment needed to fight COVID-19 are highly traded products, reflecting a global and interdependent web of supply chains that proved to be resilient in the face of the pandemic.
New OECD analysis of the latest data on global exports and imports of medical products highlights the importance of trade in helping us cope with the health impacts of the pandemic.
Take face masks: although these were exported by 199 economies and imported by 217 in 2019, in the space of three months in 2020, demand for face masks grew exponentially. Trade helped meet the temporary shortages that this generated. Indeed, face mask imports into the United States increased more than 15-fold in both value and volume, with similar surges observed in Canada, the European Union and Japan. These later returned to levels just above those pre-pandemic as sources of imports rapidly diversified.
Another example concerns reagents, which are testing agents that became a key component for COVID-19 tests. Similar products were being exported by 195 economies and imported by 219 in 2019. However, trade in reagents saw a sustained growth during the early stages of the pandemic – exports were up to 77% relative to 2019 in some major exporters.
Vaccines, which require more complex development and production processes, were exported by 116 economies prior to the pandemic but imported by 210 in 2019. Global trade in vaccines then rose at the start of 2021 alongside the production of COVID-19 vaccines. During the first six months of 2021, global trade in vaccines was already 26% higher than for the full 12 months of 2020. Vaccines trade was also accompanied by increasing trade in related or intermediate inputs underpinning their wider manufacturing and distribution.