A world health organization (WHO) worker watches as a shipment of medical supplies to fight the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) arrives in Nairobi, Kenya. March 24, 2020.

Blog Name

The next pandemic is coming. Will the world trading system be ready?


Photo Credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner


The world was wholly unprepared for the pandemic that struck in early 2020. The nature of the disease was unknown, treatment for it was nonexistent, hospitals lacked sufficient mechanical equipment to keep patients breathing, medical staff did not even have enough basic personal protective gear including face masks to avoid staff inhaling pathogens and dying, plastic trash bags doubled as surgical gowns, and there were shortages of disinfectant and in many countries even concern over the stocks of soap.

No country proved to be self-sufficient in essential goods. At the outset of COVID-19, there were too many examples of countries imposing export restrictions and taking other self-serving actions such as pre-emptive purchasing. Some other governments , however, rose to the challenge by agreeing to adopt measures that facilitated trade and removed border restrictive measures. The WTO Secretariat began to publish information notes to provide transparency as to what trade measures were in place and being taken. 

Shortages were eventually overcome. Trade barriers were gradually dismantled. With knowledge of the disease eventually came treatments, and, remarkably, by December 2020 the first vaccines became available in some locations. Vaccines and essential goods began to flow more freely. International cooperation did ultimately occur, but it was ad hoc. The last pandemic had taken place just over a century earlier. Institutional arrangements that did not exist then do now: They must be made fit for purpose. More must be done to be prepared.

Scientists are clear about the strong likelihood of pandemics recurring. To aid in a coordinated response, the World Health Organization (WHO), as would be expected, is taking the lead in dealing with pandemic preparedness. Part of this effort is centered on drafting a global treaty known at present as “WHO CA+,” calling for international cooperation to deal with future outbreaks of pandemics. The term “trade” is mentioned directly only once in the draft WHO convention, and it may not include any legally enforceable commitments. It provides:

The Parties recognize the importance of ensuring that any emergency trade measures designed to respond to a pandemic are targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary, and do not create unnecessary barriers to trade or unnecessary disruptions in supply chains.

It is not enough to have relatively vague general standards of behavior when a pandemic strikes. COVID-19 killed over seven million people. The mantra that trade measures ought to be “targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary” is a worthy objective. Not creating “unnecessary barriers to trade” is likewise a good precept.But intoning these bromides is not a guarantee of international cooperation.What makes the WTO’s rulebook stand out among current international agreements is that it is based on enforceable obligations. Binding trade rules have a long history. The Babylonian king Hammurabi, some 4,000 years ago (c. 1754 BCE), was very clear on this point. Many of his rules called for a finality that cannot readily be applied to persons in our era, and there is no acceptable means to apply draconian remedies to countries. But it is possible to hold countries accountable for living up to their obligations. In a time of great stress, such as with a pandemic, reliable firm commitments, not just aspirations, will be even more necessary.

The WTO’s trade ministers agreed at their recent conference in Abu Dhabi in February “to build effective solutions in case of future pandemics.” A WTO agreement on pandemic preparedness and response should be undertaken as a clear priority. Part of any response must be transparency. The Secretariat should provide detailed information on measures affecting the supply of essential goods, including vaccines, unlimited by any political sensitivities.

A part of the response should be to clarify how export controls are to be applied. The WTO bans export restrictions with an exception—where they are essential, they are allowed, provided that the measures are consistent with the principle that all other WTO members “are entitled to an equitable share of the international supply” of the product. What is an “equitable share” is left undefined, nor is a process specified for ascertaining how it should be determined in particular circumstances. To make the rule operational, a new pandemic trade agreement will need to specify how “equity” is to be measured and assured, despite the difficult challenge of striking a balance in a pandemic between one’s own needs and those of others. With respect to exports of food, where restrictions are allowed, a conditional commitment was adopted by the trade ministers in 2022 to exempt purchases by the World Food Programme (WFP) from restrictions, but only after meeting domestic needs first. This was a start, although a conditional one.

Working in advance of the next pandemic would allow policymakers to consider the role of investment as part of preparedness and to urge it to take place. It would also provide an opportunity for WTO members to review the recent debate over waiving intellectual property rights, which played a dominant role in the WTO's deliberations over an appropriate response to the COVID-19 pandemic but which in the end appears to have played no role in meeting the challenge.

Governments may have to step in where there are market failures. Pandemic preparedness can be enhanced by permitting agreed subsidies to build supply chains for both production and distribution. Coordinating investments and providing subsidies can enhance the speed and effectiveness of a pandemic response. A global “operation warp speed” can be envisioned. Coordination with international financial institutions as well as with private sector manufacturers will be needed.

In dealing with COVID-19, while there were false starts and shortfalls, the world trading system, after some delay, rose to the occasion. But it need not have started from so low a point of international cooperation. Much has been learned. This experience should be taken advantage of while it is fresh in the minds of those who staff governments, companies, and other institutions. This effort should be undertaken in parallel with and in cooperation with the WHO effort and concluded this year. The timing of the next pandemic will not be of our choosing, but the preparations for it can be.

We do not know when it will occur, but there is a very strong likelihood that it will happen. A headline this week read “A bird flu pandemic with the potential to be '100 times worse than COVID' may be on the horizon after a rare human case was discovered in Texas, experts have warned.This may or may not be the one. We should be ready when it does arrive.

Data Disclosure

This publication does not include a replication package.

More From

More on This Topic