New WTO Chief pushes for vaccine access, fisheries deal

GENEVA (AP) — The new Head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) called on Monday for a “technology transfer” when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines and urged member nations to reach a deal to reduce overfishing after years of fruitless talks as she laid out her top priorities after taking office.

Nigerian economist and former government minister Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala donned a mask and doled out welcoming elbow bumps as she took up her job at WTO headquarters on the banks of Lake Geneva. Still, she immediately set about trying to change the organisation’s culture.

“It cannot be business as usual. We have to change our approach from debate and rounds of questions to delivering results,” she told ambassadors and other top government envoys that make up the 164-member body’s General Council.

“The world is leaving the WTO behind. Leaders and decision-makers are impatient for change,” she said, noting several trade ministers had told her that “if things don’t change”, they would not attend the WTO’s biggest event — a ministerial meeting — “because it is a waste of their time”.

Okonjo-Iweala, 66, is both the first woman and the first African to serve as the WTO’s Director-General. Her brisk comments were a departure from the more cautious approach of her predecessor, Roberto Azevedo, who resigned on August 31 — a year before the end of his term.

She did not take sides on an effort led by South Africa and India to wrest a temporary waiver of WTO rules on intellectual property protections, which could help expand production of COVID-19 vaccines and expedite their rollout around the world. But she gave an early shout-out to the developing world.

While “intensifying” dialogue continues on the vaccine waiver proposal, Okonjo-Iweala said: “I propose that we ‘walk and chew gum’ by also focussing on the immediate needs of dozens of poor countries that have yet to vaccinate a single person. People are dying in poor countries.”

New Director-General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. PHOTO: AP