Incoming WTO chief Okonjo-Iweala warns 'vaccine nationalism' could slow pandemic recovery

Former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is set to receive unanimous backing on Monday to become the first woman and first African director-general of the World Trade Organization.

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The World Trade Organisation's incoming chief on Monday warned against "vaccine nationalism' that would slow progress in ending the Covid-19 pandemic and could erode economic growth for all countries - rich and poor.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told Reuters her top priority was to ensure the WTO does more to address the pandemic, saying members should accelerate efforts to lift export restrictions slowing trade in needed medicines and supplies.

The former Nigerian finance minister and senior World Bank executive was appointed on Monday (Feb 15) in a consensus process and starts her new job on March 1.

"The WTO can contribute so much more to helping stop the pandemic," Okonjo-Iweala said in an interview at her home in a suburb of Washington.

"No one is safe until everyone is safe. Vaccine nationalism at this time just will not pay, because the variants are coming.

If other countries are not immunised, it will just be a blow back," she said. "It's unconscionable that people will be dying elsewhere, waiting in a queue, when we have the technology."

Okonjo-Iweala said studies showed that the global economy would lose US$9 trillion (S$11.9 trillion) in potential output if poor countries were unable to get their populations vaccinated quickly, and about half of the impact would be borne by rich countries.

"Both on a human health basis, as well as an economic basis, being nationalistic at this time is very costly to the international community," she said.

"A very top priority for me would be to make sure that prior to the very important ministerial conference ... that we come to solutions as to how the WTO can make vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics accessible in an equitable and affordable fashion to all countries, particularly to poor countries," Okonjo-Iweala said she was heartened by the Biden administration's contribution to the World Health Organisation effort to ensure broader distribution of vaccines, and what she called a "fantastic" conversation with trade advisers in the US Trade Representative's office.

"I think our interests and priorities are aligned. They want to bring the WTO back to (its) purpose," she said. "It's about people. It's about inclusivity. It's about decent work for ordinary people," she said.

She said she shared the Biden administration's concerns about the need to reform the WTO's Appellate Body, but said that would not be a quick or easy process.

"This is the jewel in the crown of the WTO, and we really need to restore it," she said.

The dispute settlement body has been paralysed since last year after the administration of former US President Donald Trump refused to approve the appointment of more judges.

Okonjo-Iweala said there were clearly differences among members, but progress was possible, especially given the shift in tone and approach of the Biden administration.

"I'm not daunted. I see a way forward," she said. "With the US administration being willing to engage ... I think the way of working to try and get a solution will be different."