The WTO is postponing its conference of government ministers set to open on Tuesday after Switzerland initiated new travel restrictions following the emergence of a worrying new variant of SARS-CoV-2 first detected in South Africa, officials said.
The conference at the WTO headquarters in Geneva was set to take up key issues like a long-awaited agreement on subsidies for fisheries, seen as a major way to prevent overfishing in the world’s seas, and an effort to waive patent and other intellectual property protections linked to COVID-19 vaccines.
Ambassadors from the WTO’s 164 member states on Friday agreed to delay the four-day conference after new travel restrictions meant that all participants would not be able to attend in person, and a virtual meeting was not deemed to be an option, the a Geneva-based trade official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
British Permanent Representative to the WTO and UN in Geneva Simon Manley posted a photograph on Twitter showing WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on a dais during the meeting of ambassadors, and wrote that it depicted her announcing the postponement over the health situation and “the inability of all delegations to attend.”
The EU wrote on Twitter that the decision to postpone the meeting was “difficult, but wise … given the epidemiological situation.”
Swiss health authorities said that all direct flights from southern Africa were banned, and as of Friday evening, all people arriving from that region — as well as Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, where the variant had also been detected — must present a negative COVID-19 test result and quarantine for 10 days.
“This has not been an easy recommendation to make. 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,” Okonjo-Iweala said in a WTO statement.
This marks the second time the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a postponement of the conference.
The meeting was originally due to take place in June last year in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.
South Africa’s delegation at the WTO has led the push for an easing of protections for patents and other intellectual property behind tools aimed to fight the pandemic, including vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, in hopes of making them more available to the developing world.
Many European countries, including Switzerland and Britain, as well as the EU, have resisted the idea, saying that it could stifle innovation.
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