WTO issues new report on worldwide trade in COVID-19 medical products

The WTO Secretariat has released a new report on trade in medical products critical for the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report traces trade flows for products such as personal protective products, hospital and laboratory supplies, medicines and medical technology while providing information on their respective tariffs.

Trade in medical products which have now been described as critical and in severe shortage during the COVID-19 crisis(1) totalled about USD 597 billion in 2019, accounting for 1.7 % of total world merchandise trade according to the report. The ten largest supplying economies accounted for almost three-quarters of total world exports of the products while the ten largest buyers accounted for roughly two-thirds of world imports.

Commitments made under various WTO negotiations and agreements have helped slash import tariffs on these products and improve market access, with the average tariff on COVID-19 medical products standing at 4.8 %, lower than the 7.6 % average tariff for non-agricultural products in general. The statistics show that 52 % of 134 WTO members impose a tariff of 5 % or lower on medical products. Among them, four members do not levy any tariffs at all: Hong Kong, China; Iceland; Macao, China; and Singapore. The report, however, also identifies markets where tariffs remain high. Tariffs on face masks, for example, can be as high as 55 % in some countries. 

Key points

  • Germany, the United States and Switzerland supply 35 % of medical products; (2)
  • China, Germany and the United States export 40 % of personal protective products;
  • Imports and exports of medical products totalled about USD 2 trillion, including intra-EU trade, which represented approximately 5 % of total world merchandise trade in 2019;
  • Trade of products described as critical and in severe shortage in the COVID-19 crisis totalled about USD 597 billion, or 1.7 % of total world trade in 2019;
  • Tariffs on some products remain very high. For example, the average applied tariff for hand soap is 17 % and some WTO members apply tariffs as high as 65 %;
  • Protective supplies used in the fight against COVID-19 attract an average tariff of 11.5 % and go as high as 27 % in some countries;
  • The WTO has contributed to the liberalisation of trade in medical products in three main ways:
    • The results of tariff negotiations scheduled at the inception of the WTO in 1995;
    • Conclusion of the plurilateral sectoral Agreement on Pharmaceutical Products (“Pharma Agreement”) in the Uruguay Round and its four subsequent reviews;
    • The Expansion of the Information Technology Agreement in 2015.

The report is available here


  1. Those products include: computer tomography apparatus; disinfectants/ sterilization products; face masks; gloves; hand soap and sanitizer; patient monitors and pulse oximeters; protective spectacles and visors; sterilizers; syringes; thermometers; ultrasonic scanning apparatus; ventilators, oxygen mask; X-ray equipment; other medical devices. They are frequently mentioned by countries, international organizations and in news reports as the goods in short supply. Back to text
  2. The values of imports and exports in this study are calculated at HS 6-digit subheading level. Those subheadings could cover products that are for non-medical use. Back to text