Washington Insider-- Monday

Astra-EU Fight Opens Rift in Global Bid to End Pandemic

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Stabenow Applauds USDA Pausing CFAP Payouts

Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is welcoming the review of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) that has suspended payment activity under the program.

Stabenow said the Trump administration plan did not address provisions in the final legislation calling for assistance for farm workers, smaller food processors and others involved in the supply chain. “I very much want to see them evaluate where we are,” Stabenow said. “I'd like to have them look at what we wrote into the law that has not yet been acted on. A review makes sense.”

It is not clear how long the suspension will last but the agency will continue to accept applications.

WOTUS Remains a Key Issue Ahead

The issue of the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule continues as a potential action point for farmers and ranchers. The Biden administration January 20 said that EPA and the Defense Department would review The Trump administration's narrow federal waters definition under their Navigable Waters Protection Rule (NWPR).

Biden also signed a separate executive order revoking a 2017 Trump order calling for a review and reversal of the Obama rule. The Trump rule prevents developers from needing a federal permit for work in those waterways.

The rule is in effect in every state except Colorado, where a judge blocked it. Both the Obama and Trump-era rules are being challenged in court. This will likely result in opponents asking the courts to set aside expected Biden administration requests to stay pending litigation and allowing the lawsuits to continue.

The Biden administration is expected to ask courts to put WOTUS litigation on ice to give the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers time to decide if and how to rewrite the Trump administration rule. Others note the issue is likely again headed to the Supreme Court for more clarity.


Washington Insider: Astra-EU Fight Opens Rift in Global Bid to End Pandemic

Bloomberg is reporting this week that a European dispute over access to COVID-19 vaccines is threatening to unleash a wider political and economic conflict that could stymie global collaboration needed to end the pandemic.

After accusing UK vaccine maker AstraZeneca Plc of favoring deliveries to its home country, the European Union announced a drastic plan to control exports of COVID shots. The retaliatory move may encourage more governments to use economic might or other means to protect their interests.

The European Commission's restrictions “open Pandora's box,” said Simon Evenett, a professor of international trade at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. If others respond in similar fashion, “it really would be every man for himself.”

The squabble is opening a new rift in the global effort to slow a pathogen that's killed 2.2 million people and inflamed Brexit tensions between the UK and the EU. The bloc is already under pressure to speed up an immunization campaign that's trailing those in Britain and the U.S.

In a sign of how fraught tensions have become, the bloc also announced Friday that it was seeking to limit exports to Northern Ireland, before retreating from the plan hours later. Introducing restrictions between the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU, and Northern Ireland would contravene one of the key principles of the Brexit deal, which sought to avoid border controls after decades of violence.

The EU move prompted a rare show of unity from traditional political enemies in Northern Ireland, who uniformly decried the initial decision. Even with the Northern Ireland issue resolved, the bloc's actions remain hugely controversial and have been criticized by the World Health Organization, businesses and governments, Bloomberg said.

The likelihood of such vaccine disputes multiplying looms large after dozens of countries imposed export restrictions earlier on masks, personal protective equipment and medical supplies. Governments and companies also tussled over access to drugs like new, life-saving HIV medications that were too costly for some hard-hit countries to purchase, said Thomas Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is not just a fanciful parade of horribles,” he said. “You could see this escalating.”

In a show of unity, most European countries started vaccinations around the same time in late December. Recent U.S. re-engagement with the World Health Organization also spurred hopes of global cooperation. But maintaining that isn't easy in an environment of increasing infections and vaccine supply constraints.

As political pressure rises, “that feeling of solidarity fades,” said Klaus Stohr, a former WHO official who helped mobilize governments and drug makers to prepare for pandemics.

The stakes of getting economies back on track have also grown. Access to vaccines has become a matter of national security, said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Global Health Policy Center. That accounts for the U.S. Department of Defense's important role in developing and distributing shots.

“Vaccines are an indispensable element of getting out from under this scourge that's destroying economies,” he said. “If you can't get to herd immunity fast, that inevitably provokes a security crisis.”

Biden has said he'd use the Defense Production Act, a Cold War-era law, to boost the manufacturing of vaccines and the supplies required to administer them, such as vials and needles. If the U.S. were to combine that expanded production with export restrictions, other governments would be tempted to follow, Evenett said.

The EU's drug regulator cleared AstraZeneca's COVID shot Friday, paving the way for a conditional marketing authorization and potentially easing supply concerns. Still, frustrations are running especially high across Europe as more contagious versions of the virus emerge, and every step of COVID vaccine production and distribution is under scrutiny.

The EU may secure enough supplies to vaccinate three-quarters of its population by late October, hitting that level more than two months after the U.S. and three months behind the UK, according to the latest analysis by London-based research firm Airfinity Ltd.

While there are few restrictions on using export bans in trade law, nations could try to tamp down on vaccine-related retaliation via the G-7 or the G-20, as has been suggested by the Ottawa Group, Bollyky said. Those nations in November called for restraint in using any export restrictions as part of wider measures in response to the pandemic and discouraged WTO members from putting tariffs on essential medical products.

Companies could also help defuse the tension by providing more details about their production plans, Evenett said. Bowing to pressure, AstraZeneca published its contract for the delivery of doses to the region. “Guidelines would be a way of preparing – they won't help you in an ongoing dispute,” said Harvey Fineberg, former president of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine. Attempts to set rules for sharing vaccines “would only be interpreted in light of who it would advantage now.”

So, we will see. The instinct toward protectionism remains strong and can threaten most trading strategies in some cases — decisions that often have severe long-term implications. So, the posture of the new administration toward global cooperation should be watched closely as joint efforts proceed, or fail to develop, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN's Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

If you have questions for DTN Washington Insider, please email edit@dtn.com