WTO Delays Key Meeting Amid COVID Variant Concerns

GENEVA (AP) -- The World Trade Organization is postponing its conference of government ministers set to open Tuesday after Switzerland initiated new travel restrictions following the emergence of a worrying new coronavirus variant, officials said.

The MC12 conference at 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 agreed Friday to delay the four-day conference after new Swiss travel restrictions meant all participants wouldn't 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 ambassador Simon Manley tweeted a photo of 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 European Union's international trade office's Twitter page said the conference "is postponed for now - a difficult but wise decision by @wto given the epidemiological situation."

The Swiss health department 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 -- other places where the variant was detected -- must present a negative COVID-19 test and go into 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 pandemic has forced a postponement of the 12th Ministerial Conference. The meeting was originally due to take place in June 2020 in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.(backslash)

Across town on Friday, the World Health Organization classified the worrying new variant that was first detected in South Africa as a highly transmissible variant of concern, and named it the omicron variant -- as part of the Greek-letter identification system used by the U.N. health agency.

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 pandemic including vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, in hopes of making them more available to the developing world. Many European countries including Switzerland, the EU and Britain have resisted the idea, saying it could stifle innovation.

Concerns about the new omicron variant sent stock markets swooning on Friday amid concerns about wider economic fallout including travel restrictions.