GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP) — Next week’s World Trade Organization (WTO) 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 organization, 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 Organization.
Fears surrounding the spread of the variant saw countries banning flights from southern Africa, where the strain was first detected on 9 November.
“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,” Castillo said.
The conference normally takes place every two years.