Grappling with the lack of a global mask and respirator – personal protective equipment (PPE) that protects doctors, nurses and others who are likely to be affected by Coronavirus novels – the government moves on Friday to ban the export of these products. Although the intent can be understood, unintended consequences can be expensive.
In a positive step, Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo spoke with Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne about the need for international cooperation to load COVID-19 transmissions. According to a statement, Pompeo “reiterates the United States’ desire to work with Canada to ensure the continuity of international supply chains for essential medical supplies and personnel.”
This is welcome news because there is evidence of export bans and other trade barriers that reduce the availability of much needed medical supplies. Foreign retaliation is one of the reasons. And as Pompeo points out, international supply chains – where parts for these products are produced and ultimately assembled in value chains that go back and forth across national borders – will be disrupted, making everyone worse off.
One important example is the ventilator, which heroically began to be produced by car companies like GM. As a Politico report“Every ventilator that GM wants to make requires 419 main parts, and there are ‘thousands of sub-components that go into 419 parts, especially given the complexity of the design of some individual parts,’ said company spokesman Jeannine Ginivan … About 70 percent of the parts are produced in the United States and around 10 percent throughout North America. The remaining 20 percent needs to be imported from countries including France, Italy, South Korea, Thailand, Britain, Japan, China and Taiwan. “More trade barriers means fewer ventilators.
The US-Canada trade relationship offers an overview of how our international trade helps respond to pandemics in various ways. Increasing barriers to trading with Canada, Mexico, or others will only weaken our ability to fight the corona virus.
MASK: The Harmac Pacific paper mill headquartered in British Columbia on Vancouver Island has doubled its pulp exports for U.S. customers. to make masks and surgical gowns. The mill is “the only producer of world-class pulp paper used in the manufacture of masks and surgical gowns,” according to one report in Victoria News.
TREATMENT: AbCellera, a therapeutic antibody discovery company based in British Columbia, has “put a fast pandemic response platform to work, identifying more than 500 fully unique human antibody sequences,” according to a report in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News. The company partnered with Eli Lilly to jointly develop the most promising antibodies into potential treatments for COVID-19 with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) (led by Tony Fauci, now famous), Dale and the Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center , and the Gates Foundation.
VACCINE: A potential plant-based vaccine for COVID-19 is now approaching pre-clinical testing thanks to a partnership between Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco through the US biotechnology subsidiary Kentucky BioProcessing, according to a report in Wall Street Journal. The Canadian-owned Medicago unit, partly owned by PMI (based in Quebec), hopes to begin human trials for a potential vaccine this summer.
STERILIZATION: Disposable medical equipment – surgical gloves, protective clothing, and a number of other products – are sterilized using an isotope called cobalt-60 which is produced almost exclusively in Canada. The United States obtained cobalt-60 from Nordion, a company based in Ontario. A report in Hamilton Spectator explain how the need for irradiation (as this process is called) has surged with a pandemic and helped extend the usefulness of rare protective products. (The same isotope is used in cancer treatment, where, once again, Canada supplies the entire cobalt-60 used in the United States.)
CAREGIVER: Between 1,500 and 2,000 health workers living in Windsor, Ontario, commute daily to work in Detroit, one of the cities in the US hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. BuzzFeed recounted some of their terrible and selfless experiences at a Detroit hospital.
These accounts only scratch the surface of how the US-Canada commercial partnership is contributing to the global pandemic response. The same can be said about our trade ties with Mexico and others. Over the years, the Chamber of Commerce and others have explained that in North America we “make everything together,” and that applies to health care products such as cars or other items.
Indeed, the Chamber of Commerce has listened to reports from various member companies about how producers work around the clock to increase the output of respirators and ventilators – and draw cross-border production chains to do so. This includes companies that have not traditionally produced these products but are trying to retool their operations to help in a pandemic response.
The lesson is clear: The export ban is the wrong approach. Keeping trade flowing is not the right thing to do from a humanitarian point of view; turning it off will only make it harder to fight a pandemic.
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