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 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, 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 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. 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 commitment 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, 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 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. read more
Negotiations over the waiver had deadlocked amid opposition from Switzerland, Britain and some other European countries.
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 nations.
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."
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