WTO's big conference postponed due to new Covid variant

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WTO's big conference postponed due to new Covid variant
© DENIS BALIBOUSE The WTO ministerial conference was postponed just four days before it was due to start, hours after Omicron was declared a variant of concern by the World Health Organization

Next week’s World Trade Organization ministerial conference, the global trade body’s biggest gathering in four years, was postponed at the last minute Friday due to the new Omicron Covid-19 variant.

The WTO hoped the four-day gathering in Geneva would breathe new life into the crippled organisation, which has been stuck for years trying to make progress on resolving issues like fishery subsidies.

New director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was also hoping, against the odds, to conclude a deal on lifting Covid vaccine patents, proving the WTO had a relevant role to play in combating the pandemic.

But the conference was postponed four days before it was due to start, hours after Omicron was declared a variant of concern by the World Health Organization.

Fears surrounding the spread of the variant saw airlines banning flights from southern Africa, where the strain was first detected on November 9.

Meanwhile stock markets and oil prices plunged on fears surrounding the variant, potentially dealing a heavy blow to the global economic recovery.

WTO deputy director-general Anabel Gonzalez said the conference “has been postponed”, with the full membership of 164 states behind the decision taken by Okonjo-Iweala and General Council chair Dacio Castillo.

“Health, fairness and inclusiveness informed the call. It is the right decision. Work will and must continue,” Gonzalez said.

The beleaguered WTO’s 12th ministerial conference (MC12) has already been postponed once before due to the pandemic. It was originally due to take place in Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan in June 2020.

– IP waiver must wait –

The conference normally takes place every two years.

It was expected to draw more than 100 ministers to Geneva, where the organisation is based, including heads of state, plus 4,000 or so delegates.

The gathering was being seen as a test of Okonjo-Iweala’s ability to fulfil promises to turn around the crisis-hit institution.

The Nigerian former foreign minister, who in March became the first African and first woman to lead the WTO, has been widely hailed for her revitalisation efforts.

She has helped kick-start blocked trade negotiations, and made reaching a long-elusive deal to end harmful fishery subsidies a top priority for the conference.

She also stressed the urgency of agreeing on how to remove trade barriers blocking access to Covid-19 vaccines.

Ministers were also due to discuss calls for a temporary waiver on intellectual property protections for vaccines and other medical tools needed to fight the pandemic.

But the Covid caught up with the conference before Okonjo-Iweala could even start banging heads together on the subject.

EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said the WTO had made a “difficult but wise decision”.

“Rest assured: we will continue to work towards a successful outcome of the postponed ministerial in the meantime,” he said.

Simon Manley, Britain’s ambassador in Geneva, said that given the inability of all delegations to attend also said it was a wise move.

“We stand undaunted in our support for the WTO and look forward to the holding of a successful MC12 ASAP,” he said.

– US, China tensions –

Besides fisheries and Covid, the meeting was also set to chart a way forward for the WTO, amid widespread calls for reform of an organisation that was already facing numerous daunting challenges before the pandemic. 

In addition to its long inability to conclude major trade deals, it has grappled with rising trade tensions between the United States and China and a broken dispute settlement system. 

“There was little optimism around the outcome of the negotiations over the coming days,” said Elvire Fabry, a trade policy researcher at the European Jacques Delors Institute.

However, she said the postponement was a bad turn of events which “prevents us from underlining that the US non-engagement encourages the inertia” around reforming the WTO.

Dmitry Grozoubinski, director of the Geneva Trade Platform organisation, had little hope that having extra time to play with would prove fruitful in finding agreements.

“Probably not,” he told AFP.

“The benefit of a ministerial conference is it provides the chance of political movement on issues where technical solutions alone aren’t enough.”

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