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Which countries are the top traders of COVID-19-critical products?
Source:WTO    Editor:    Date:14.Jan.2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on the global economy and international trade. Recent statistics issued by World Trade Organization (WTO) show that global trade in the first half of 2020 registered a 14% year-on-year decline and was 15% lower than trade in the second half of 2019.


Trade in medical goods surged 15.8% in first half of 2020


Trade in medical goods, perhaps not surprisingly, surged, growing 15.8% year-on-year in the first half of 2020, much higher than the 2% growth registered in the first half of 2019. Preliminary figures for 97 economies registered US$ 1,139 billion in trade (including exports plus imports) of medical products. These figures correspond to a 7.5% share of world trade for the same period and more than the 5.3% share in 2019.

Trade in personal protective products grew 50.3%, followed by medicines (11.6%), medical supplies (9.6%) and medical equipment (5.5%).


Trade in medical products (first half of each year indicated), 2018-2020. (Source: WTO)

Medicines remained the largest category by value in the first half of 2020, accounting for more than 50% of all traded medical products. Personal protective products became the second-largest category, with an 18% share.


Trade in COVID-19-critical products up 29% in first half of 2020


Trade in products considered critical in the COVID-19 pandemic response grew rapidly in the first half of 2020, with a year-on-year increase of 29% (imports and exports increased by 31% and 27%, respectively). Total trade for these products in the first half of 2020 alone, valued at US$ 381 billion, was equivalent to 63% of trade in the full year of 2019.

Among these critical products, imports of face masks almost doubled (a 90% year-on-year increase from US$ 39 billion to US$ 74 billion) in the first half of 2020, while exports increased by 84%, from US$ 38 billion to US$ 70 billion. Total trade of face masks was worth US$ 140 billion.


Trade in respirators also grew rapidly, by 57%, although the value of this trade amounted to only US$ 13 billion, equivalent to just over 1% of trade in all medical goods. Exports of hand sanitizer and hand soap increased by about 2% year-on-year in the first half of 2020, relatively modest growth that may indicate that increased demand was being primarily met by domestic production.


China, Germany and the US ranked major traders of critical products


Looking only at products critical to combatting COVID-19, trade was dominated by China, Germany and the US, which were also the top traders for all goods.


Together with Japan, Malaysia, Mexico and four EU countries other than Germany (i.e. Belgium, France, Ireland and the Netherlands), the top 10 countries accounted for more than 72% of world exports. Though, the respective world shares of the countries ranked 5th to 10th were relatively small, with less than 3.5% each.


Top 10 exporters and importers of goods critical to combatting COVID-19. (Source: WTO)

The value of Chinese exports of COVID-19-critical products tripled, based on year-on-year first half of the year data, from US$ 18 billion to US$ 55 billion. The share in world exports of these products more than doubled, from 12% in the first half of 2019 to 29% in the first half of 2020. As a result, while other exporters in the top ten saw export revenues rise, their share of total global trade decreased.


The US remained the top importer of COVID-19-critical medical goods, followed by Germany and China. The U.S. imported US$ 36 billion worth of products from January to June 2020 and accounted for 19% of the total imports of COVID-19-critical medical goods.


Germany was second (US$ 17 billion, 9% of world imports) followed by China (US$ 12 billion, 6% of world imports). The top 10 countries accounted for more than 60% of world imports – a lower degree of concentration than for exports, possibly because many countries had limited domestic production capacity for these goods and relied heavily on imports.


China as the world's top supplier of face masks


Although seemingly straightforward, the manufacturing of face masks requires several types of inputs and a relatively sophisticated process. Many countries depend mainly on imports to meet mass demand; this was especially true during the early phase of the pandemic.


In the first half of 2020, total imports of face masks reached US$ 74 billion, a 90% increase from the same period last year. China was the world's top supplier of face masks, accounting for 56% of the world total export value (US$ 70 billion) for the first half of 2020.


China's shares in the top 10 import markets for face masks during the first half of 2020. (Source: WTO)

For the top 10 importers of face masks (excluding China itself), China was consistently the top supplier, accounting for more than 50% of imports, except into Mexico, which sourced more masks from the U.S., where China accounted for more than two-thirds of imported face masks in many leading markets, including almost three-quarters of face mask imports in the U.S. and Italy, and 80% in its Asian neighbor, Japan.


To ramp up face mask production, China sourced intermediate materials from other countries. China's imports of non-woven fabric surged in March and April 2020, more than doubling in the first half of 2020 compared to 2019. Half of these products were imported from Japan and the U.S.



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