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WTO Postpones Geneva Ministerial Meeting Over Virus Concerns

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 11/26/2021 Bryce Baschuk
Views Of The World Trade Organisation As U.K. Lays Out Trade Agenda © Bloomberg Views Of The World Trade Organisation As U.K. Lays Out Trade Agenda

(Bloomberg) -- The World Trade Organization postponed its in-person ministerial conference in Geneva as Switzerland tightened travel restrictions following the discovery of a new strain of the coronavirus.

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WTO members took the decision at an emergency meeting held on Friday night to discuss possible alternative arrangements for their ministerial conference. The conference will be convened as soon as conditions allow, General Council Chair Dacio Castillo said in a statement.

“My priority is the health and safety of all MC12 participants -- ministers, delegates and civil society,” Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said. “It is better to err on the side of caution.”

The Swiss government announced a ban on all direct flights from southern Africa after the World Health Organization said new, potentially riskier strain named omicron is a variant of concern. Beginning Friday all people entering Switzerland from southern Africa, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium must present a negative Covid-19 test and go into quarantine for 10 days, according to a statement from the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health. 

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Countries across Europe halted air travel from southern Africa amid growing concern about the variant. European Union members agreed to rapidly impose restrictions on seven African countries -- Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe -- as scientists scrambled to determine whether the new strain is more dangerous.

The sudden change may prevent trade ministers from reaching agreements on critical issues relating to a waiver of the WTO’s intellectual-property rules for vaccines and therapeutics. 

Approximately 4,000 trade officials were planning to travel to Geneva for the WTO’s 12th ministerial conference, a gathering of the organization’s highest decision-making body.

The meeting, which was scheduled to take place from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3, presented a rare opportunity for governments to deliver real outcomes that impact the lives of everyday people.

WTO ministerial meetings typically take place every two years but there has not been a ministerial conference since 2017 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

(Updates with confirmation from WTO in first paragraph.)

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