WASHINGTON, Nov 26 (Reuters) - U.S. Trade Representative
Katherine Tai said the United States would continue to push for
World Trade Organization members to agree on an intellectual
property framework for COVID-19 vaccines after a major WTO
ministerial meeting set for next week was postponed on Friday.
The delay of the in-person meeting in Geneva https://www.reuters.com/business/wto-postpones-major-meeting-over-covid-19-concerns-sources-2021-11-26
over travel restrictions and concerns about the spread of the
new Omicron COVID-19 variant complicates Tai's plans to push her
vision for WTO reform and rekindling the spirit of dynamism and
compromise that led to the trade body's creation in 1995.
In a pair of tweets https://twitter.com/ambassadortai/status/1464400123681820675?s=21,
Tai said the postponement "is a reminder that we still have
much work to do to end the pandemic."
"The United States will continue working with @WTO members
to achieve a multifaceted outcome on trade and health, including
an international IP framework, that supports the global pandemic
response and puts the WTO in a stronger position to meet the
needs of regular people," Tai said.
The WTO's director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said she
wanted negotiations to continue despite no in-person travel,
while Geneva-based country delegations should be empowered to
reach deals, especially on vaccines.
"This new variant reminds us once again of the urgency of
the work we are charged with," she said in a statement.
No matter the venue, Tai's main problem in reforming the WTO
is getting past entrenched positions and competing national
interests - including those of the United States - that have
kept the organization from evolving over the past quarter of a
century, trade experts say.
Tai recently told reporters that the WTO, which was
established to regulate and facilitate international trade,
cannot return to its status quo https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-trade-wto/u-s-trade-chief-tai-says-wto-needs-infusion-of-energy-vision-idUSKBN2HV2UX
and needs new vision and energy to stay relevant in a rapidly
changing global economy.
"My vision for WTO reform is that WTO members come to Geneva
or wherever it is that they might convene and bring their honest
selves," Tai said. Members should "be prepared to fight for the
vision of the WTO that" they want.
The latest round of WTO ministerial-level talks was set to
take place against the backdrop of a global trading system
scarred by the coronavirus pandemic and the tumult of the trade
wars launched by former U.S. President Donald Trump during his
four years in office.
Trump, who was skeptical about free trade and multilateral
agreements, had threatened to withdraw from the organization https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-wto/wto-chief-says-no-panic-over-trump-withdrawal-threat-idUSKCN1LG27C.
The WTO's dispute settlement system was paralyzed two years ago
by U.S. opposition to Appellate Body judge appointments, with
Washington arguing that the body had overstepped its mandate.
Tai has repeatedly voiced the Biden administration's
to the WTO and has sought to engage with U.S. allies on reforms
for the organization.
"She's saying all the right things. She's underscoring the
importance of a well-functioning WTO," said Wendy Cutler, a
former USTR negotiator and current director of the Asia Society
Policy Institute in Washington. "The question is whether the
U.S. is playing the leadership role to help broker these deals,
as it has done in the past, and perhaps that's not as evident as
it used to be."
Pressure from India https://www.reuters.com/world/india/india-push-patent-waiver-covid-19-vaccines-wto-2021-11-26,
other developing countries and activist groups has been
building for an IP waiver that would allow more widespread
manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries, with
some WTO members said to be threatening to block progress https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/non-profit-groups-tell-wto-reverse-vaccine-apartheid-before-any-meeting-2021-11-24
on other issues without a waiver.
Tai in May announced U.S. support for the waiver, and
President Joe Biden repeated the call on Friday in response to
news about the new variant discovered in South Africa.
Negotiations over the waiver had deadlocked https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/year-after-covid-vaccine-waiver-proposal-wto-talks-are-deadlocked-2021-10-04
amid opposition from Switzerland, Britain and some other
In the fishery subsidies negotiations, Tai is pushing a U.S.
proposal to ban subsidies for fishing fleets that use forced
labor, including an explicit recognition that it is a problem.
The demand has drawn opposition from India and other developing
Jamieson Greer, who was USTR chief of staff during the Trump
administration, said he doesn't see Tai backing down from that
demand given the Biden administration's focus on workers'
rights, so his expectations are low.
"We're looking at the WTO ministerial that doesn't have
many, if any, consensus documents or outcomes," said Greer, who
is now a trade lawyer with King & Spalding in Washington. He
added that these may be replaced by plurilateral statements,
which would not necessarily be considered a failure.
"I think it probably will underscore that the WTO cannot
solve a lot of these intractable problems."
(Reporting by David Lawder; Additional reporting by Emma Farge,
Philip Blenkinsop and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Paul Simao,
Leslie Adler and Daniel Wallis)