By Olawale Ajimotokan
The Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has stated that one of her mission to Nigeria is to facilitate the easing of restriction on the country’s health supplies and equipment, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Okonjo-Iweala made the disclosure yesterday when she and her delegation met with the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Boss Mustapha and the members of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 in Abuja for discussions on the challenges encountered in the arrival and distribution of vaccines in the country.
Although she admitted that trade is instrumental in access to medical supplies and equipment, she, however, lamented that some of the challenges are that some WTO member-countries are putting export restrictions on the movement of medical supplies, equipment, including supplies to make vaccines.
“The main reason we are here is really to see how WTO can support Nigeria in improving its economy. And part of doing that is the health. We are in a pandemic and of course, you cannot advance the economy until you take care of the health aspects. And so what the Secretary to the Government of the Federation is doing along with the Presidential Task Force is laudable, and we wanted to just discuss with them; one, what is happening with the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines; how that is being distributed; the challenges, opportunities on the way of that and what the WTO can do,” she said.
Okonjo-Iweala said the one of the things WTO intends to do is to collaborate with members to reduce the export restrictions in the manufacture and supply of vaccines.
She said: “If you take vaccines, for instance, I will just give you one number from the manufacturer of the Pfizer BioTech vaccine. We had a meeting with the manufacturers a couple of days ago in Geneva and their representative said that it takes 280 components to manufacture their vaccine. And it is in a supply chain that involves 19 countries. So, in the supply chains – many of our products, medical products are global. And so when a country puts export restrictions on one, it means that you slow the production everywhere, that is where the WTO comes in because we have certain rules that members should abide by with respect to these restrictions.
And we play a fundamental role in making sure that medical supplies and equipment and vaccines circulate”.
She said WTO had managed to reduce the blockade and restrictions on the export of medical supplies and equipment by many countries at the beginning of the pandemic, adding the number which stood at 91 countries has been considerably whittled down 59, which in her estimation is still too many.
“And so that is one of the things we are trying to get right. So we are here to see what we can do to support Nigeria. I have to personally say, I was chair of GAVI, the vaccine alliance for five years, one of those who designed the COVAX facility and have been very proud of the ability to make available to poorer countries and to emerging markets like Nigeria, access to vaccines at affordable prices. So we will continue to push that. And we want to see what the challenges and opportunities are and how it is going.
“Let me say I am proud of the progress that has been made. It sounds good. And I hope we can continue in that way,” she said.
Mustapha, who is the Chairman of PTF, expressed hope that Okonjo-Iweala’s tenure at WTO would bring succour to the country in the light of the deficit in budget, infrastructure and housing.
He noted that the pandemic has provided an opportunity for the country to reassess its governance system, economic foundations and the need to heighten inclusion in the way it develops its agendas and programmes.