WTO’s big conference postponed due to new COVID-19 variant

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A photo taken on May 28, 2020 in Geneva shows the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters at sunrise. - Candidates to succeed Roberto Azevedo as head of the WTO will have one month from June 8 to submit their nominations, the global trade body said following the Brazilian's surprise resignation. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

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 conclude a deal on lifting COVID-19 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 airlines banning flights from southern Africa, where the strain was first detected on November 9.

Meanwhile, stock markets and oil prices plunged on fears surrounding the variant, potentially dealing a heavy blow to the global economic recovery.

WTO deputy director-general Anabel Gonzalez said the conference “has been postponed”, with the full membership of 164 states behind the decision taken by Okonjo-Iweala and General Council chair Dacio Castillo.

“Health, fairness and inclusiveness informed the call. It is the right decision. Work will and must continue,” Gonzalez said.

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.

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