WASHINGTON • The new chief of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has warned against “vaccine nationalism” that would slow progress in ending the Covid-19 pandemic and could erode economic growth for all countries – rich and poor.
Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told Reuters her top priority was to ensure the WTO does more to address the pandemic, saying members should accelerate efforts to lift export restrictions which are slowing trade in needed medicines and supplies.
The former Nigerian finance minister and senior World Bank executive was appointed on Monday in a consensus process and starts her new job on March 1.
“The WTO can contribute so much more to helping to stop the pandemic,” Dr Okonjo-Iweala said in an interview at her home in a Washington suburb on Monday. “No one is safe until everyone is safe. Vaccine nationalism at this time just will not pay, because the variants are coming.
“If other countries are not immunised, it will just be a blow back. It’s unconscionable that people will be dying elsewhere, waiting in a queue, when we have the technology.”
She said studies showed that the global economy would lose US$9 trillion (S$12 trillion) in potential output if poor countries were unable to get their populations vaccinated quickly, and about half of the impact would be borne by rich countries.
“Both on a human health basis, as well as an economic basis, being nationalistic at this time is very costly to the international community,” she said.
“A very top priority for me would be to make sure that… we come to solutions as to how the WTO can make vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics accessible in an equitable and affordable fashion to all countries, particularly to poor countries.”
She said she was heartened by the Biden administration’s contribution to the WTO’s effort to ensure broader distribution of vaccines, and what she called a “fantastic” conversation with trade advisers in the US Trade Representative’s office. “I think our interests and priorities are aligned. They want to bring the WTO back to (its) purpose. It’s about people. It’s about inclusivity. It’s about decent work for ordinary people.”
She said she shared the Biden administration’s concerns about the need to reform the WTO’s appellate body, but it would not be a quick or easy process.
The dispute settlement body has been paralysed since last year, after the Donald Trump administration refused to approve the appointment of more judges.
The US delegate to the WTO on Monday welcomed the appointment of Dr Okonjo-Iweala as director-general, and said the US was counting on her to jump-start efforts to reform and revitalise the global trade body.
China also said it hopes the WTO, under Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s leadership, will resume its normal functions as soon as possible and play a greater role in anti-pandemic cooperation and economic recovery.