As Arkansas received a vital shipment of personal protection equipment (PPE) to help healthcare workers slow the spread of the COVID-19, the Trump administration is quietly seeking to ease some restrictions in the ongoing trade war with China on critical products such as ventilators, oxygen masks and other health-related products
In a docket posted to the Federal Register on Friday (March 20), the U.S. Office of United States Trade Representative is seeking comments on the administration’s efforts to modify certain tariffs on Chinese goods under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974.
In the four-page filing, the U.S. Trade office said it has used its authority under Section 301 to impose tariffs on Chinese goods related to technology transfer, intellectual property, and innovation. But now, USTR is asking individuals, businesses and government agencies to submit comments promptly if they believe further changes to the Section 301 tariffs are necessary.
“At the direction of the President, the U.S. Trade Representative has imposed duties on products of China in order to obtain the elimination of the unfair and damaging acts, policies, and practices identified in this investigation,” the filing states. “In order to reflect developments in the efforts to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, USTR is requesting public comments on possible further modifications to remove duties from additional medical-care products.”
Interested parties have until June 25 to comment on whether a product not covered in the trade pact is needed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. News of a possible trade policy change spread quickly Monday as Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced during his daily COVID-19 media briefings that Arkansas would be receiving a shipment of 2 million PPEs from the Strategic National Stockpile.
Hutchinson said the state procurement officials have received 25% of its requested allotment from national inventory housed in the U.S. Department of Human Services. The PPEs heading to Arkansas comes from the largest supply of life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out. Those limited supplies come as the number of positive coronavirus cases in Arkansas rose to 174, up from 165 on the previous day.
Late last week, Gov. Hutchinson authorized the release of $30 million to the Department of Finance and Administration for the purchase of PPES for health care professionals and first responders as they test and treat patients who have contracted COVID-19. The $30 million was allocated from the Budget Stabilization Trust Fund to a Disaster Assistance Grant, which will go into the Governor’s Disaster Fund.
Hutchinson has said the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences will distribute based upon priorities set by the Arkansas Department of Health. Local hospitals will participate in the bulk purchase and each will pay its portion of the overall purchase.
Over the past year, USTR has granted exclusions for many health-related products U.S. trade officials said. Notably, the imposition of tariffs on certain Chinese imports has not resulted in an overall decline in the availability of needed medical equipment and supplies.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, USTR said it worked with the HHS to ensure that critical medicines and other essential medical products were not subject to additional Section 301 tariffs. Among other things, critical products included parts needed for MRI devices, CAT scanners, certain radiation therapy equipment, air purification equipment, and parts of homecare beds.
“Today, in an effort to keep current on developments in our national fight against the coronavirus pandemic, USTR has opened a docket for members of the public, businesses, and government agencies to submit comments if they believe further modifications to the 301 tariffs may be necessary,” said the USTR office.
The possible easing of the trade restrictions on Chinese goods by USTR falls nearly a week after Americans for Free Trade called on President Donald Trump to suspend tariffs as part of emergency measures to mitigate economic harm caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In a March 18 letter to the president, the pro-business coalition said the ongoing trade war with China has cost American businesses, consumers, farmers, and manufacturers over $53 billion in lost trade.
The letter was signed by 160 businesses and organizations, representing every part of the U.S. economy including manufacturers, farmers and agribusinesses, forest products, retailers, technology companies, service suppliers, natural gas and oil companies, importers, exporters, and other supply chain stakeholders.