Next week’s World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference, the global trade body’s biggest gathering in four years, was postponed at the last minute on 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 make progress towards 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 Organisation.
Fears surrounding the spread of the variant saw countries banning flights from southern Africa, where the strain was first detected on November 9.
“This has not been an easy recommendation to make,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
“But as director-general, my priority is the health and safety of all MC12 participants – ministers, delegates and civil society. It is better to err on the side of caution.”
WTO General Council chair Dacio Castillo called an emergency meeting of all 164 member states to tell them about the Omicron situation, including travel restrictions and quarantine requirements.
The members unanimously supported the postponement call.
Okonjo-Iweala said the travel constraints would have prevented many ministers from reaching Geneva, rendering equal participation impossible.
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.
The WTO intends to reconvene “as soon as possible when conditions allow”, said Castillo.
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.