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WTO postpones major meeting over COVID-19 concerns – sources

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Trade Organization (WTO) became the first major diplomatic casualty of the new coronavirus variant on Friday when it postponed its first ministerial meeting in four years due to the deteriorating health situation, Geneva-based sources said.

Ministers from WTO members were due to gather next week for a meeting widely seen as a test of the WTO’s relevance.

The World Health Organisation has classified the B.1.1.529 detected in South Africa as a “variant of concern”, saying it may spread more quickly than other forms of the virus. Scientists are also seeking to find out if it is vaccine-resistant.

Switzerland, home to the WTO, on Friday banned direct flights from South Africa and the surrounding region, and imposed test and quarantine requirements on travel from other countries, including Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

The Geneva-based trade body had planned a meeting in person, but the new restrictions meant delegations of large players such as South Africa and the Brussels-based European Commission would have been limited to a largely virtual presence.

Even before the postponement the prospects were not bright.

The WTO has only managed one update of its global rules in its near 27-year history, the red tape-cutting Trade Facilitation Agreement, and its 164 members looked far from agreement in its most active talks – on curbing fishing subsidies and spreading COVID-19 vaccines more widely.

“I think the organization has to demonstrate that it is capable of having success,” Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in an interview for the upcoming Reuters Next conference.

(Reporting by Emma Farge and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebahay in Geneva; Writing by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Mark Porter and Sandra Maler)

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