NEW YORK – A coronavirus surge has upended plans to hold a major nuclear treaty conference at the United Nations, with participants agreeing Thursday to postpone the meeting just days before its scheduled start.
After nearly two years of pandemic delays, delegations from around the world had been scheduled due to converge on U.N. headquarters Tuesday to take stock of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, a pillar of nuclear arms control.
But organizers are now penciling in an Aug. 1 start date for the already long-delayed conference, according to an email Thursday from the U.N. disarmament office to entities involved.
An inquiry was sent Thursday evening to the conference's leader, Gustavo Zlauvinen.
The treaty is the world’s most widely ratified nuclear arms control agreement, with 191 participating countries. Nations without atomic weapons committed not to acquire them and to allow verification that nuclear energy programs weren't morphing into weaponry. Countries that had nuclear weapons when the treaty was signed — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China -- agreed to move toward eliminating them.
Review conferences are scheduled every five years to assess implementation and try to hash out new commitments, though participants sometimes have been unable to agree on any final declaration or plan. That happened at the last meeting, in 2015.
The next gathering was initially scheduled for spring 2020 but has repeatedly been pushed back because of the pandemic.
As coronavirus cases spike again in the U.N.'s host city of New York and a growing number of staffers are sick or are quarantined, the world body told Zlauvinen on Monday that it couldn't accommodate a big gathering now. The organization suggested moving the conference online or delaying it.
After discussions with participants, Zlauvinen said Wednesday that there was little appetite to proceed with next week's start date.
“This is a regrettable decision, but the present circumstances do not leave us any other choice,” wrote Zlauvinen, an Argentine diplomat and former International Atomic Energy Agency official.
There were further consultations Thursday about the meeting's timing and format.
Besides governments, arms control groups also have been keenly awaiting the conference at a time when issues range from the frayed Iran nuclear deal to established atomic-armed powers' work to modernize their arsenals.
“The further postponement of the NPT Review Conference is very unfortunate and should not be used as an excuse not to pursue actions necessary to curb the accelerating global nuclear arms race," said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.