The government has proposed the United States (US) to use Bangladeshi pharmaceutical companies in manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines and drugs.
Commerce Secretary Md Jafar Uddin made the proposal at a virtual meeting with the United States Trade Representative, known as the US Department of Commerce, under the Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement (Ticfa) on Tuesday.
Assistant US Trade Representative for South and Central Asia Christopher Wilson led the US delegation at the meeting.
Bangladesh also demanded the withdrawal of tariffs on exports of personal protective equipment (PPE), facemasks as well as aromatic rice, and sought duty-free access to the US market for textiles and apparel products made from US cotton.
Jafar Uddin said, "Highlighting our pharmaceutical sector's capability, we have proposed the US to produce all kinds of vaccines and medicines in Bangladesh.
"The US will have those drugs and vaccines produced by Bangladeshi phramas through 'contract manufacturing' and supply those to its own country or other nations. But, it has no relation with the purchase of Covid-19 vaccine."
When asked about the US response on the proposal, he said, "We have not reached any decision at the meeting in this regard. We have just made a proposal. The US will let us know after they discuss it among themselves."
The US has demanded that fumigation tests be cancelled on cotton imports and that tariffs be lowered on some products. "We will review those and decide accordingly", the commerce secretary added.
A senior official at the commerce ministry told The Business Standard that the world is craving for vaccines against Covid-19. Sputnik in Russia, Shinovac in China, Oxford University, Moderna and Pfizer in the US are at the final stage of their vaccine trials.
"Incepta and Popular pharmaceuticals have vaccine production plants in Bangladesh. Several other companies also have capabilities to produce vaccines very easily. Therefore, we proposed [the US for] producing vaccines, various drugs and injections in Bangladeshi pharmas," the official pointed out.
Pharma industry insiders said Incepta has the largest vaccine production plant in Bangladesh. The company is producing various vaccines and exporting them to different countries.
Incepta Vaccine Ltd, a state-of-the-art facility fully compliant with WHO GMP requirements, is a large vaccine manufacturing facility that can manufacture 180 million single-dose vials and ampoules per year.
Many classified and unclassified cold rooms (from temperature -20 degree Celsius to +10 degree Celsius) are in place to store all critical materials at required temperature to maintain their efficacy.
Ebadul Karim, managing director of Beacon Pharmaceuticals Limited, told The Business Standard that the Bangladesh pharmaceutical sector can produce and supply vaccines. Maybe, they need to do some facility modifications.
"We can do that. The US will surely give us their formulations if we can produce vaccines."
He added that at present, two companies are producing vaccines. Many companies can produce a variety of injections, including antiviral ones. A few more companies, including Beacon Pharmaceuticals, can produce vaccines after the modifications are performed. "We should allow them two to three months to make preparations."
The demand for Bangladesh-made PPE and masks is increasing in the US. In addition to various US brands, the country's government is importing these protective products from Bangladesh.
But, the country keeps imposing a 15.5 percent tariff on these essential products, similar to the case for ready-made garments. Bangladesh has proposed that the US withdraw this duty.
Mohammad Hatem, senior vice-president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told The Business Standard that the US should withdraw duties on PPE and mask imports in the interest of its citizens' healthcare.
He also said, in the last three to four months, Bangladesh has been recognised as one of the world's leading exporters of PPE and masks. About half a hundred companies, including Beximco, Zaber & Zubair, Snowtex and Urmi Group, have started production and export of these products.
"The Bangladesh government needs to take strong initiatives to ensure their duty-free access to various countries, including the US," he added.
Duty-free access sought for garment exports
Meanwhile, the commerce ministry has sought duty-free access to the US markets for the export of garments made in Bangladesh from cotton imported from that country.
This is the first official call of Bangladesh for duty-free access for its ready-made garments to the US markets since the suspension of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) facility for Bangladesh by the US in 2013.
According to a commerce ministry official, Bangladesh is one of the largest buyers of US cotton.
Cotton is imported from that country through fumigation tests at the port. The US is trying to export more cotton to Bangladesh by cancelling the test. In this context, Bangladesh has said the country's textile sector will be more interested in importing US cotton if ready-made garments made from US cotton are given duty-free access, he also said.
Secretary of Bangladesh Textile Mills Association Mohammad Monsoor Ahmed told The Business Standard that Bangladesh imported 7.1 million bales of cotton in 2019. Of that, more than 11 percent was imported from the US. Cotton imports from the US will increase significantly if duty-free facilities are provided.
The US suspended Bangladesh's GSP facility after the Rana Plaza collapse in April 2013.
In November that year, the two countries signed the Ticfa agreement. Since then, five Ticfa meetings have been held. The next meeting will be held in the US.
Tuesday's interim meeting was held between the two sides to share the status of implementation of decisions made at various meetings held in between the two Ticfa meetings and to discuss new cooperation.