Impact of COVID-19 on selected medical and associated imports

Statistics about international trade in goods and services, on a balance of payments and international trade basis

Released
3/11/2022

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted on Australia’s economy and society across a wide array of areas. As Australia moved through the pandemic period (Figure 1), demand for COVID-19 associated products has directly driven changes in international trade patterns, with record imports observed across a range of medical related products. This article highlights selected import categories that featured notable changes in trade since the beginning of the pandemic and leverages the granularity of the International Merchandise Trade dataset.

Figure 1: Timeline for COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccination progress

The image is a timeline showing COVID related events such as lockdowns by state and initial cases of the various strains of COVID-19. The timeline starts from March quarter 2020 and ends at September quarter 2022. Note: the lockdowns shown in the above timeline are for metropolitan areas only.

Figure 1: Timeline for COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccination progress

The image is a timeline showing COVID related events such as lockdowns by state and initial cases of the various strains of COVID-19. The timeline starts from March quarter 2020 and ends at September quarter 2022. Note: the lockdowns shown in the above timeline are for metropolitan areas only.

Imports are classified in accordance with the Harmonized System (HS), with the most detailed level of imports classification being the Harmonized Tariff Item Statistical Code (HTISC). Some analysis below utilises the HS 6-digit (HS6), which refers to a mid-level aggregation of HTISC commodity codes that is generally comparable between countries [1].

 

 

Vaccines for human medicine

In the Trade data, imports of vaccines are recorded under the category ‘Vaccines for human medicine’ (HS6 300220/300241). Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was relatively low levels of imports of vaccines, including those to combat influenza. This series changed considerably during the pandemic.   

Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout was primarily supported by vaccines imported from overseas manufacturers [2]. Large imports of COVID-19 vaccines were initially limited to AstraZeneca’s Vaxzevria and Pfizer’s Comirnaty following provisional Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approval on 15 February 2021 and 25 January 2021, respectively. Australia reached the 80 per cent of over-sixteens double-vaccinated milestone in November 2021 [3]. 

COVID-19 vaccines drove a 745% increase by value in imports of vaccines for human medicine over two years, from $449m in 2019-20 to $3,793m in 2021-22 (Figure 2). Vaccine imports have declined since late 2021, with uptake of booster doses slowing [4]. 

(a) HS6 300241 is graphed from January 2022, when it replaced HS6 300220.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

In the Trade data, there is no single category for personal protective equipment (PPE), which instead are recorded under a broad range of textiles-related commodities including:

  • ‘Gloves etc of rubber for medical and related uses e.g. disposable gloves’ (HS 4015120010/4015199095)
  • ‘Garments of plastic or similar e.g. isolation gowns and protective overalls’ (HS 6210101001)
  • ‘Woven and non-woven textile articles e.g. face masks’ (HS 6307904007 & 6307909908)

Imports of PPE increased during the pandemic, particularly from early-to-mid 2020 in response to increased demand for face masks, disposable gloves, and other protective wear (Figure 3). 

(a) Commodity 4015120010 is graphed from January 2022, when it replaced 4015199095

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and rapid antigen tests (RATs)

Testing for COVID-19 formed a major part of the Australian Government’s response to managing the pandemic. Initially, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests were the main form of testing used. In early 2022, the Government transitioned to accepting results from rapid antigen tests (RATs) as part of testing and isolation requirements. RATs were also utilised for testing students returning to school [5].

In the Trade data, imports of both PCR tests and RATs are classified under the category ‘Diagnostic or laboratory reagents’ (HS6 382200/382219). Imports of PCR tests drove a small increase in this category in early-to-mid 2020 before imports of RATs drove a large increase in late 2021 to early 2022 (Figure 4).

On a country basis, the United States of America (USA) was the top country of origin for Australia’s diagnostic or laboratory reagent imports in the pre-pandemic period. Imports typically included various in-laboratory and at-home test kits, for example for blood glucose monitoring and hepatitis infection diagnosis. In March Quarter 2022, China surpassed the USA, accounting for 42% of value for all diagnostic or laboratory reagent imports. This was more than six and a half times that of the USA, reflecting the surge in RAT imports.

(a) HS6 382219 is graphed from January 2022, when it replaced 382200.

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