U.N. Nuclear Treaty Conference Likely to Be Delayed Due to NYC's Spike in COVID Cases

A critical international conference could be delayed once again due to a COVID-19 surge.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is currently scheduled to take place at the United Nations on January 4. The treaty was established in 1970 and helped to bring the Cold War to its end, with delegations coming together to review the treaty against a modern backdrop. However, the most recent meeting has already been postponed several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic and it could be delayed once more.

The conference always takes place at the headquarters of the United Nations, located in New York City, which is the reason for the potential delay. The city is experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases brought on by the Omicron coronavirus strain, with over 17,000 cases being confirmed over the past week. Although the conference could take place online and through video conferencing, the delegations have been waiting for an in-person conference since the start of the pandemic. Unless opposition towards delaying the conference once more comes forward, the event would be postponed indefinitely.

"This is a regrettable decision, but the present circumstances do not leave us any other choice," wrote conference President-designate Gustavo Zlauvinen in a letter to delegates sent on Tuesday. New potential dates and venues for the conference are currently being discussed.

UN HQ
The Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which meets at the United Nations, could be delayed once again due to the coronavirus pandemic. Pictured, the United Nations Headquarters building in Manhattan, New York City, on December 8, 2021. Photo by Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images

Joined by 191 countries, the NPT is the world's most widely ratified nuclear arms control agreement. Under the pact, nations without atomic weapons committed not to acquire them; those that had them at the time — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China -- committed to move toward eliminating them; and everyone all endorsed all countries' right to develop peaceful nuclear energy. Nations without nukes also agreed to ongoing verification that any nuclear energy programs they might have aren't being diverted to weaponry.

Review conferences — to take stock of compliance and try to commit to further steps — are supposed to happen every five years. The upcoming one was initially scheduled to start in April 2020, when the pandemic had prompted lockdowns and shutdowns around the globe. The year marked the 50th anniversary of when the treaty entered into force.

Nearly two years later, the virus' extremely contagious omicron variant is fueling another spike in cases in New York and elsewhere. Over 168,000 people people tested positive for the coronavirus in New York City in the seven days that ended Monday, compared to about 77,000 the week before and 25,000 in the week that ended Dec. 13, New York state data show.

A growing number of U.N. headquarters staffers have tested positive for COVID-19, so the world body can't provide all the services needed for a big in-person meeting and is worried about the risks to staffers and delegates, U.N. official Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, wrote to Zlauvinen.

"Our considered view is that it will be safer for delegates and staff alike" if the conference moves online or gets delayed to accommodate in-person participation, wrote Viotti, who is Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' chief of staff.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Zlauvinen
Argentina's Vice Foreign Minister Gustavo Rodolfo Zlauvinen speaks at the 4th plenary session during the last day of the OAS 49th General Assembly in Medellin, Antioquia's department, in Colombia, on June 28, 2019. He also serves as the president for the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Photo by Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP via Getty Images