WTO scraps major meeting in June due to coronavirus

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Trade Organization’s major biennial meeting, due to be held in Kazakhstan in June, has been canceled due to concerns over coronavirus, dealing a blow to its efforts to update the global rules of commerce.

The WTO’s Director-General Roberto Azevedo was told by the Kazakh government on Thursday that the WTO’s members should “revisit” plans to hold the ministerial meeting in the country’s capital Nur-Sultan on June 8-11.

Kazakhstan announced on Thursday it was suspending all public events and closing schools and colleges as well as cinemas and theaters in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Central Asian country, which borders China, has so far reported no coronavirus cases, but Kazakh authorities have said the arrival of the disease appeared imminent.

The Interfax news agency quoted deputy prime minister Alikhan Smailov as saying the June WTO ministerial conference in Kazakhstan had been canceled.

The 164-member WTO holds a meeting of trade ministers once every two years. The last such meeting was in Buenos Aires in December 2017 and the Kazakh gathering had already been put back six months to avoid the harsh winter.

The Geneva-based trade body had hoped to seal a deal to limit fishing subsidies and make progress towards a multinational agreement on e-commerce rules, though expectations had been dampened by strained negotiations in recent months.

A drive towards reform of the 25-year-old body could also have begun in Nur-Sultan. Many major WTO members, including the United States and the European Union, believe the global trading rules that the WTO oversees urgently need updating.

The WTO will seek to hold a special General Council meeting of members to decide how to proceed as soon as conditions permit. All meetings at the WTO are suspended until March 20 after a staff member contracted the coronavirus.

Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; editing by Robin Emmott and Mike Collett-White