Controls On Vaccine Exports 'Hold Back' Pandemic Recovery, Warns Incoming WTO Head

Feb 20, 2021
Originally published on February 20, 2021 3:19 pm

The incoming head of the World Trade Organization says getting countries to drop export restrictions on vaccines and medical supplies needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic will be one of her top priorities.

Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is set to become the WTO's director-general on March 1. She's the first woman and first African to lead the group that governs trade rules between countries.

The pandemic has had a profound impact on global trade, which "dropped precipitously in 2020," Okonjo-Iweala tells NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered.

Overall, the global economy contracted by 4.3% in 2020, according to the World Bank. The International Monetary Fund predicts the global economy will grow by 5.5% in 2021. But variants of the coronavirus and vaccine rollout complications make those forecasts uncertain.

"Until we solve the public health issues of the pandemic, we can't really get the economic issues settled," Okonjo-Iweala says.

Okonjo-Iweala talked with NPR about the WTO's role in improving access to vaccines, areas where she feels the WTO needs reform and being the first woman to head the organization. Here are excerpts of the interview, edited for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

Do you feel that the WTO can influence this issue in the short term?

How can the WTO help? Well, when people think of vaccines, when they think of therapeutics and diagnostics, these are also traded goods. And to the extent that countries, WTO members, have export restrictions or even prohibitions on the exports of these goods, this helps hold back the recovery.

So trying to use the rules to monitor strongly and encourage members to drop these restrictions is very important. Up to a hundred members still have them. So I believe the WTO can contribute strongly by trying to get these rules dropped, encouraging a freer flow of goods, helping to exercise the needed flexibilities to encourage more manufacture of vaccines all over the world. I think these are ways to help.

The WTO's effectiveness as a trade regulating body, I think many analysts would say, has been weakened in the face of rising nationalism and protectionism. ... Do you agree with the critique? And secondly, what are your priorities in reforming the organization?

I agree with the critique that the WTO needs reforms, there's absolutely no doubt about that. And I had said in my campaign that it cannot be business as usual. The reason is that the WTO is about people. It even says so in the preamble to the agreement that was made in Marrakesh [to establish the WTO]. It's to improve living standards, to help create employment, support sustainable development. And so it must be reformed to ensure it contributes to those.

And first and foremost, I've talked about the top priority for me, seeing how the rules can be looked at so that we can help contribute to a solution of this pandemic, both on the health and economic side.

The second area we need to look at is the dispute settlement system. You alluded to it. The WTO has the only place in the entire world where countries can bring disputes, trade disputes they have with each other, and have them looked at and settled. So we need to reform this. It's been paralyzed. There have been criticisms of the way it functions, that it goes beyond its mandate. And there are genuine criticisms that we need to look at from all members. And we need to reform that quickly.

... There's no point making new rules if the place where disputes can be settled is not working.

I think the third aspect is that the WTO has fallen behind in its rule-making. We need to update rules to 21st century realities. I'll just give you an example. This pandemic has heightened the issue of the digital economy and e-commerce is booming. And there are no rules right now that underpin e-commerce. There is a set of negotiations going on among members on e-commerce. So the sooner we expand those negotiations and finalize them and come to rules that can really help underpin trade so it is fair, there's a level playing field, it's balanced, both poor and rich countries can have access. I think these are some of the areas where I think our top priority is to take action.

There are so many firsts in your resume. You are the first woman to serve as finance minister and foreign minister in Nigeria. You will be the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO. ... That feels like a lot to carry.

My sincere hope is that we open the door so that in future women will just go into these jobs and it will not create as much noise always as it has. Second, it does carry a sense of responsibility when people are looking to you and you are in such a public place to do better. But I've been there before.

I'm focused on delivering results. Because I felt that, look, this is what I have to do to make clear that we shouldn't think twice about bringing women into these jobs. And my pride and joy is that since I was finance minister, three more women have been made finance minister in Nigeria. So actually it's now become the thing, not only in Nigeria but on the continent, to have women running finance. ...

If you wake up in the morning thinking, oh my God, I have these huge responsibilities, then you become paralyzed. I'm just going to focus on: How can I get results? How can I get people together to produce for the global economy? And above all, how can I also see that the WTO serves poor countries so that they can also benefit from the multilateral trading system?

Jeff Pierre and William Troop produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit


We're going to end the program today where we began - in Texas. As we've been reporting, residents there are still struggling to cope with the effects of that powerful winter storm that hit the state several days ago. Officials are warning millions of people to boil their water for safety after heavy damage from burst water pipes contaminated the supply. And even though power has been restored to most people who lost it at the height of the storm, many still don't have electricity, including thousands of people in the city of Houston.

We wanted to check in with one Houston resident who's been coping like many - somebody whose name you probably know - Dr. Mae Jemison, the physician and engineer who became NASA's first African American woman astronaut and the first woman of color in space. And Dr. Mae Jemison is with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. How are you doing?

MAE JEMISON: I'm doing fine - much better than earlier in the week.

M MARTIN: What happened earlier in the week? You lost water and power.

JEMISON: Well, we lost power and didn't have power for quite a while and then maybe had it for three hours, and it went back off. And the temperatures were much lower than they ever are in Houston. So you're trying to actually deal with the lower temperatures, seeing your breath in the house, you're walking around. But it's getting better.

M MARTIN: Yeah. And how about the water situation? Are you having to boil your water right now?

JEMISON: We have to boil our water. So I'm using bottled water for drinking, boiling water to wash dishes and all of those kinds of things. But, you know, here's the thing. Here's where we are right now. We're in a place where it did not have to be this bad because there was enough information for years about robustness of systems, knowing that as the climate changed, it wasn't just that it's going to get warmer all the time, but there would be these different effects of where the Gulf Stream goes - that, you know, the temperatures may be much more erratic.

And the whole idea of the robustness of an electrical system, and Houston being a city that is prone to hurricanes and other things - and, in fact, in post-Ike situations - Hurricane Ike - we knew that we had to have better housing codes and building codes. And so it really is up to government to do a better job with robustness of systems in assuring that we do what we can to make systems as resilient and as robust as possible.

M MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that because, as I said, you are a physician, but you're also an engineer. You've been in space. I mean, you've been engaged with some of the - sort of the highest and most sophisticated technology, technological systems that the world has to offer. In addition to that, you've been a longtime sort of advocate for scientific literacy. I mean, this has been one of your, you know, causes for years.

And I just wonder, you know, what do you make of this? I mean, do you just - I mean, in addition to just, like, coping with the discomfort of being, like, cold and not having, you know, water and stuff like this, but I just wondered, like, what do you make of this - just the fact that something like this happened in the United States? What do you make of it?

JEMISON: I think when we look around from some of the reactions that we've had to vaccines and the pandemic, how do we protect ourselves, there is a major issue around science literacy. But it's not just around, do we know we can get infected by germs? It's but understanding how the scientific process works in terms of development and even the communication from the side of scientists. Because when we talk about risk, benefits and all of those kinds of things, there's a very certain language that scientists use and physicians use with each other, but it doesn't necessarily translate to the public.

So when you say, well, maybe the vaccine is not as effective against new variants, but it keeps you from going to a hospital and dying, that's the important part, right? And so it's really how we translate this language and what people start to understand. The - when you have politicians, our leaders, policymakers, they have to understand that, yes, something may happen maybe every 20 years or maybe every hundred years. But when that happens, the toll could be catastrophic. And so that's what you have to prepare for.

M MARTIN: I know you have a new edition of your autobiography coming out soon. It's the young adult version. It's called "Find Where The Wind Goes." For those who don't know it, the new edition is for young adults. It's written from the perspective of your 16-year-old self.

The first question I have is, like, how strange is it? Here you are trying to prepare for a book rollout and a book tour without, you know, heat, wi-fi - like, the whole thing. So that's - the first thing is - I mean, I guess it's already been sort of strange because of the pandemic, but how have you been managing all of that?

JEMISON: Well, I think, you know, "Find Where The Wind Goes" is really about and it was written originally always for my 16-year-old self and telling her about some of the adventures she would have and clues along the way as to how she got through. And those clues include that you can't always predict what's going to happen. And you have to be resilient and be able to work with what you have and be prepared for different opportunities and different challenges.

M MARTIN: So what's keeping you hopeful right now? It's kind of - you - obviously, you still have your sense of humor, but - which is kind of hard to do when you're freezing and cold - freezing cold and, like, have to - don't have good, clean water. But what's keeping you hopeful?

JEMISON: The world is an incredible place. Humans have a remarkable amount of resilience. What keeps me hopeful is when I see people responding positively to help others, even though we're in a time where in this country just - we can't believe the kind of divisiveness in some of the things that people are uncomfortable about. But when you look around, and you see people helping each other, you know that we have the possibility to do better.

M MARTIN: That was Dr. Mae Jemison, Houston resident, physician, former astronaut. A new edition of her autobiography, "Find Where the Wind Blows," is coming out soon.

Dr. Jemison, stay warm. I hope things get better in Houston soon.

JEMISON: It will. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE'S "MAGIC FLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.