WTO calls off meeting after travel ban thwarts delegates


The World Trade Organization has postponed its biennial ministerial meeting after Switzerland tightened travel restrictions to control the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.

The decision was made at an emergency meeting of ambassadors in Geneva on Friday, diplomats told the Financial Times.

The meeting was due to begin on Monday but Switzerland banned travel from southern Africa and said that people from Belgium and Israel, where cases have been detected, would have to quarantine for 10 days. That ruled out most of the EU delegation from travelling.

The decision was taken “in light of the deterioration of the sanitary conditions and travel restrictions”, according to an internal communication seen by the FT.

Anabel González, deputy director-general of the WTO, wrote later on Twitter: “The full membership is behind the decision of the General Council Chair @CastilloDacio and DG @NOIweala. Health, fairness and inclusiveness informed the call. It is the right decision. Work will and must continue.”

One key aim of the meeting was to improve the availability of vaccines in the developing world.

India, South Africa and several other countries want to waive intellectual property protections, including patents, copyright and trade secrets on all medical goods used to treat Covid-19.

But developed countries including the EU, UK and Switzerland have opposed such a sweeping move. The EU has attempted a compromise by offering to loosen rules on compulsory licensing.

That would allow governments to instruct generic manufacturers to make drugs domestically with minimal compensation for the pharmaceutical companies that invented them.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, WTO director-general, said on Thursday that the IP talks were “stuck”.

However, ministers had hoped to conclude a deal to protect fish stocks by ending subsidies for deep-sea fishing. India and some EU countries were still resisting but WTO officials believed that a deal could be thrashed out after 20 years of talks.

The news is a blow to the 164-member body. It cannot fulfil one of its main functions, to adjudicate trade disputes, because the US is refusing to nominate panellists to its appellate body. Ministers were expected to begin a debate on WTO reform.

The meeting was first scheduled for June in Kazakhstan.

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