WTO Meetings Canceled As Staffer Contracts Coronavirus

By Alex Lawson
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Law360 (March 10, 2020, 2:43 PM EDT) -- A World Trade Organization staff member has been diagnosed with COVID-19, the WTO confirmed Tuesday, adding that the organization has canceled roughly 10 days' worth of scheduled meetings as it looks to contain the virus.

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo said the organization has canceled more than a dozen scheduled meetings that were slated to take place through March 20 as a precautionary measure following the diagnosis of novel coronavirus within its ranks.

"We take the health of secretariat staff and our members very seriously, which is why we have taken this unprecedented step," Azevêdo said in a statement. "We are monitoring the situation very closely and will take whatever measures are necessary to protect health and safety."

The director-general added that the WTO leadership "will monitor the situation constantly and review this decision before the end of next week," he said.

There have been nearly 500 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Switzerland, where the WTO is based, according to government figures. The country has also seen three deaths in relation to the outbreak.

A number of high-profile WTO bodies will see their in-person meetings scrapped as a result of the diagnosis, including the Council for Trade in Goods, the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, and the group of delegations negotiating to trim fisheries subsidies.

While those meetings have been postponed, WTO spokesman Fernando Puchol said that the WTO itself remains open for business, with staffers having the option to work remotely.

The episode illustrates a potentially larger problem for the WTO as it continues to prepare for its Ministerial Conference, currently slated for June 8-11 in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. The conference typically welcomes the top trade officials and staff for all 164 of its members, along with throngs of journalists, business organizations, NGOs and advocacy groups.

A WTO spokesman did not respond to specific inquiries about the organization's plans for the Ministerial Conference or its plans to hold the canceled meetings virtually, but Azevêdo said in his statement that the organization's leadership has formed a task force to monitor global developments relating to the outbreak.

"The WTO … is taking all precautions necessary in response to the evolving situation," he said.

The virus causes fever, coughing and shortness of breath. The World Health Organization has thus far confirmed more than 100,000 COVID-19 cases throughout the globe, with more than 3,100 deaths.

Since its origin in the Hubei province of China at the end of 2019, the virus has gradually spread to dozens of other countries and squeezed global supply chains in the process.

--Editing by Janice Carter Brown.

Update: This story has been updated with more information from a WTO spokesman.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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