China’s exports of coronavirus-critical medical products nearly tripled in 2020, with US$105 billion in goods shipped

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China exported the largest amount of coronavirus-critical medical products in 2020, with the US$105 billion worth of equipment shipped overseas – almost three times the level seen a year earlier, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Global trade in medical goods hit US$2.3 trillion in 2020 as the world responded to the coronavirus outbreak, which was first reported at the end of 2019 and declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization at the end of January 2020.

This represented global growth of 16 per cent, compared with the previous year. In contrast, the total value of the world’s merchandise trade contracted by 7.6 per cent in 2020.

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The share of medical goods in world trade grew from 5.3 per cent in 2019 to 6.6 per cent in 2020, according to the Trade in Medical Goods in the Context of Tackling Covid-19: Developments in 2020 report from the WTO.

The surge of exports pushed China to the position of top exporter in 2020. Another economy that saw a big jump in exports in 2020 was Malaysia, which registered a 52 per cent annual increase

World Trade Organization

Overall, the global trade in goods considered critical in efforts to stop the coronavirus grew by 31 per cent in 2020. These goods include face masks, ventilators, sterilizers and ultrasonic scanners.

“The world’s top three merchandise traders – China, the United States and Germany – are also the top three traders for Covid-19-critical products. While the share of these three economies in total world merchandise trade was around 31 per cent in 2020, their share for Covid-19-critical products is even higher, at 41 per cent. The top 10 economies accounted for around 72 per cent of world supplies – although the shares of the economies ranked fifth to 10th were relatively small,” said the WTO report.

“Chinese exports of products considered critical to combat Covid-19 almost tripled from US$38 billion in 2019 to US$105 billion in 2020. The share of these products more than doubled, from 12.6 per cent in 2019 to around 26.7 per cent in 2020.

“The surge of exports pushed China to the position of top exporter in 2020. Another economy that saw a big jump in exports in 2020 was Malaysia, which registered a 52 per cent annual increase.”

The US remained the top importer of Covid-19-critical medical goods, followed by Germany and China after sourcing US$78 billion worth of products abroad, accounting for almost one-fifth of world imports. The US bought most of these goods from China, followed by Mexico and Germany.

“The bilateral trade patterns among the top three economies during the first half of 2020 persisted throughout the year. The United States and Germany, the top importers for Covid-19-critical products, sourced a large proportion of their imports from China, the world’s top supplier. China had a 40.2 per cent share in the US market and more than a quarter of the share (26.5 per cent) of Germany’s market,” the WTO report added.

In the first five months of 2020 in China, 70,802 new companies registered to make or trade face masks, representing a 1,256 per cent rise from a year earlier.

Factories that were a wide variety of unrelated goods, including golf balls, vape pens and car parts, switched to making masks because it was viewed as a quick and easy way to turn a profit within a few weeks of production, due to rising demand.

The surge, though, diluted product quality in some cases, and China faced backlash overseas, leading it to tighten export rules.

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