Ministers at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum are set to discuss a proposal from New Zealand to remove tariffs on COVID-19 vaccines and related medical products.
In a move that could ease delays in delivering vaccines more widely, host New Zealand wants APEC's 21 members to agree on "best practices guidelines" on the movement of vaccines and related medical products across borders, a person familiar with the talks told Reuters.
New Zealand believes an agreement is needed to show that APEC is responsive and relevant to the crisis facing the world.
"The successful distribution of vaccines across our region will be critical to our recovery," New Zealand's trade minister Damien O'Connor told reporters ahead of the meeting.
Average APEC tariffs on vaccines are low at around 0.8 per cent but other goods important in the vaccine supply chain face higher tariffs.
Alcohol solutions, freezing equipment, packaging and storage materials, vials and rubber stoppers face average tariff rates above 5 per cent, and import tariffs can be as high as 30 per cent in some APEC economies.
Senior officials have been in talks since May 18 and trade ministers were holding final discussions in a virtual meeting on Saturday after which a joint statement will be issued.
APEC gatherings in recent years have struggled to reach agreements due to then-US President Donald Trump's trade war with China. The new Biden administration has promised a more multilateral approach.
"What I've heard from these few days of interaction with my fellow ministers from the APEC region is broadly an agreement that we need to increase access to vaccines, increase supply of vaccines," US Trade Representative Katherine Tai told reporters.
APEC ministers are also expected to discuss support for the waiving of intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines, an issue which is currently under negotiation at the World Trade Organisation. India and South Africa are leading the push for waivers.
O'Connor said there are a range of challenges around production and distribution of vaccines that can be addressed to improve supply around the world, but gaining patent waivers could still be an obstacle.
"Having looked at all those challenges, if it is IP that is holding us back, I think that there will be consensus reached at the WTO.
"And I think as APEC economies, we certainly are going to ask for that to be considered seriously," he said.