“On Monday, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the incoming head of the World Trade Organisation, warned against “vaccine nationalism,” which would impede progress in ending the COVID-19 pandemic.
She also said that the trend could erode economic growth for both rich and poor nations.
In an interview with Reuters, Okonjo-Iweala said that its top priority was to ensure that the WTO does more to counter the pandemic, adding that the Member States should accelerate efforts to remove export restrictions by slowing down trade in medicines and supplies that are needed.
On Monday, in a consensus process, the former Nigerian finance minister and senior World Bank executive was appointed and began her new job on March 1.
Okonjo-Iweala said in an interview at her home in a suburb of Washington that, “The WTO can contribute so much more to helping stop the pandemic.”
Until everybody is safe, no one is safe. At this moment, vaccine nationalism just won’t pay, because the variants are coming. If other nations are not immunized, that’s only going to be a blow back,’ she said.
“It is unconscionable that when we have the technology, people will die elsewhere, waiting in a queue.”
Okonjo-Iweala said research found that if developing countries were unable to get their citizens vaccinated rapidly, the global economy would lose $9 trillion in potential productivity, and about half of the effect would be borne by rich nations.
“Being nationalistic at this time, both on a human health basis and on an economic basis, is very costly to the international community,” she said.
“A very high priority for me would be to ensure that, prior to the very important ministerial conference, we find solutions to how the WTO can make vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics accessible to all countries, particularly poor countries, in an equitable and affordable manner,”
Okonjo-Iweala said she was inspired by the commitment of the Biden administration to the efforts of the World Health Organization to ensure wider delivery of vaccines and what she called a “fantastic” conversation with trade advisers in the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.
“I think our interests and priorities are aligned. They want to bring the WTO back to (its) purpose,” she said.
“It’s about people. It’s about inclusivity. It’s about decent work for ordinary people,” she said.
She said she shared the Biden administration’s concerns about the need to reform the WTO’s Appellate Body, but said that would not be a quick or easy process.
“This is the jewel in the crown of the WTO, and we really need to restore it,” she said.
The dispute settlement body has been paralyzed since last year after the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump refused to approve the appointment of more judges.
Okonjo-Iweala stated that there were strong differences between the members, but progress was possible, especially given the change in tone and approach of the administration of Biden.
“I don’t get daunted. I see a way ahead,’ she said. “I think the way of working to try and get a solution will be different with the U.S. administration being willing to engage……”