Travel bans due to new COVID-19 strain force WTO to postpone key ministerial meet
12th Ministerial Conference was scheduled to discuss licensing issues, vaccine property rights, supplies to fight pandemic
The World Trade Organization Saturday postponed its in-person ministerial conference next week after the “outbreak of a particularly transmissible strain of the COVID-19 virus” forced several countries to impose travel restrictions.
“The WTO’s General Council agreed to postpone the imminent Ministerial Conference after an outbreak of a particularly transmissible strain of the COVID-19 virus led several governments to impose travel restrictions that would have prevented many ministers from reaching Geneva,” the WTO said after an emergency meeting.
The meeting was scheduled to discuss issues such as licensing and intellectual property rights around vaccines and other critical supplies used to fight the pandemic that has wreaked havoc over almost two years on international business and trade.
Around 4,000 ministers and other trade officials were expected to travel to Geneva for the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference that was due to run from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3.
However, the announcement of travel restrictions and quarantine requirements in Switzerland and other European countries led it to call an emergency meeting of all the WTO members to inform them of the situation.
“This has not been an easy recommendation to make,” said WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala after the body governing international commerce postponed its planned ministerial meeting for the second time in two years.
Err on side of caution
“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," she said.
The pandemic forced a second postponement of the 12th Ministerial Conference as it was initially scheduled in June 2020 in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.
On Friday, the World Health Organization declared the new COVID-19 variant announced in South Africa with many mutations a "variant of concern," naming it Omicron.
Switzerland announced it would ban all direct flights from southern Africa after the WHO said that Omicron is a potentially riskier strain.
Other European countries and the United States halted air travel from southern Africa due to concerns about the Omicron variant.
EU members agreed to impose restrictions on seven African countries – Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Okonjo-Iweala noted that postponement of the meeting would keep the WTO in line with Swiss health regulations, and the organization did not name a new date for the meeting.
The WTO pointed out that many delegations had long maintained that meeting virtually does not offer the interaction necessary for holding complex negotiations on politically sensitive issues.
The Geneva-based WTO’s 164 members set rules for international commerce, and it is supposed to resolve trade disputes between its members legally.