Tariff-relief requests for surgical tools, air filters, breathing circuits, other products flood US trade office

27 March 2020 19:50

Electric surgical tools, heating systems, air filters, respiratory devices, tankless water heaters and machines that make medical masks are among the imports for which businesses this week have sought US relief from China tariffs in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

Biotech company Danaher, however, had misgivings about the process, describing it as "burdensome, time-consuming and costly to the companies already feeling the strain of [a] slowing economy and the need to fight" the pandemic, the company's trade compliance director, Galina Free, said in comments to the Office of the US Trade Representative.

In the past few days, requests rushed into the trade office's online portal once the agency announced March 20 it would consider lifting some Trump administration tariffs on Chinese products. USTR said it was seeking input from the public, businesses and other government agencies to help identify additional imports needed to minimize the viral outbreaks and that, therefore, require an exemption from the tariffs imposed two years ago against China under Section 301 of the Trade Act.

The process comes as a slew of businesses and economists have criticized President Donald Trump’s trade policy because of shortages in pharmaceutical and medical supplies to combat the pandemic. Members of Congress and interest groups had also been urging the administration to temporarily lift the tariffs as the economy sputtered because of public health lockdowns across the country.

Trump, however, dismissed such calls, insisting China should still be punished with the remaining Section 301 tariffs. US trade chief Robert Lighthizer also defended the president, touting the requests his office has immediately approved for medical suppliers a few weeks ago as concerns over the virus spiked in US. Lighthizer also highlighted the agency’s previous work with the Health and Human Services Department to ensure that critical pharmaceutical and medical imports avoided duties.

Nevertheless, companies see the comment period as an opportunity to get a variety of products off the tariff list to help the ease the pandemic. It's also an opportunity for businesses to get their pending or previously rejected applications reconsidered and quickly approved, or get an extension on their expiring tariff exemptions.

Danaher requested tariff relief on about four dozen imports, including injection molds used to produce cartridges for highly sought-after molecular diagnostic test kits, such as those for medical respiratory and breathing circuits made with filters.

BiPad asked for a 25 percent tariff to be permanently removed on a critical surgical part for its electrocautery medical system, a surgical machine that reduces the risk of a medical staff’s exposure to contamination and is therefore considered a personal protective equipment.

Infected patients “will require procedures, such as tracheostomies and other surgeries necessitated by COVID-19, utilizing electrocautery medical systems,” BiPad said.

Madison Indoor Air Quality said there has been a high demand for its high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters that are sold to medical facilities. The company asked the US to lift the 7.5 percent tariffs on wire, electric, plastic and blower parts used to manufacturer the HEPA filters.

Roberts Gordon, a ventilation company, requested lifting the 25 percent tariffs on 10 China-sourced steel, aluminum, blowers, filters and cast iron parts used to build its commercial and industrial infrared heating systems. The company said they are used in fire stations, police and ambulance garages, military vehicle maintenance and essential manufacturing.

“We have seen continued demand for these systems through the COVID-19 crisis. With your help, we can continue building and providing these products to the essential industrial/commercial and military community,” Roberts Gordon said.

Eemax, a water heater supplier, doubled down on its request to remove tariffs on imported electric tankless water heaters. They are used for handwashing; cleaning and disinfecting homes and elderly-care facilities; and personal hygiene — all “critical to reducing the transmission of the virus.”

The heaters are especially critical now that the Covid-19 response “includes the construction and retrofitting of temporary triage hospitals and other treatment facilities for patients, and remote or mobile testing centers,” said Eemax, whose application is currently pending at USTR.

Henderson Sewing Machine pitched for tariff relief on automated systems that produce cup-type protective, foldable respiratory and pleated masks.

Nearly 400 comments have appeared on the docket this week, many of which are complaints or compliments about Trump’s tariffs. More responses will come from entities in the medical, healthcare, pharmaceutical and other fields that have been fighting the pandemic. The comment period will end in June.

Free, however, bemoaned the uncertainty of the USTR process. "Even if Danaher were to marshal the internal and external resources to complete the petitions, there is significant uncertainty as to whether the petitions will be approved," Free said, noting that a "vast majority" of the company's original petitions were denied in 2018 and 2019.

"Danaher resources and customer time would be better spent on the front lines supporting healthcare professionals and researchers’ efforts to save lives," Free said.

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