New WTO Director-General prioritises access to vaccines, faces challenge of waiver for WTO rules

February 17, 2021: Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, confirmed as World Trade Organisation Director-General on February 15, is making her top priority ensuring the trade body does more to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

A former special envoy for the World Health Organisation on COVID-19, she called the disparities in vaccine rates between rich and poor countries “unconscionable” and urged members to lift export restrictions on medical items.

The WTO currently faces deadlock over an issue of waiving some WTO rules on intellectual property rights for COVID-19 drugs. This is being supported by most developing countries, with the minority of wealthy countries opposed.

It remains to be seen whether Dr Ngozi will support the temporary waiver of WTO rules proposed by developing countries.

According to the Bloomberg report, Dr Ngozi also expressed confidence that her priorities were aligned with Washington’s. “I think our interests and priorities are aligned. They want to bring the WTO back to [its] purpose,” she said.