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John Kerry tests positive for coronavirus, complicating end of climate talks

The U.S. special envoy’s illness will derail his intense, personal brand of diplomacy as COP27 nears its uncertain conclusion.

U.S. Climate Envoy John F. Kerry speaks during a session on the Global Methane Pledge at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP27, on Thursday in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
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Former secretary of state John F. Kerry, who is currently the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, tested positive for the coronavirus, the State Department said Friday, complicating the final hours of negotiations at the U.N. Climate Change Conference underway in Egypt.

Kerry “is experiencing mild symptoms” and self-isolating in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, a State Department spokeswoman, Whitney Smith, said in a statement. Thousands of negotiators are still gathered there, hammering out final agreements after nearly two weeks of talks.

Kerry’s illness will derail his intense, personal brand of handshaking diplomacy, forcing him to defer the in-person conversations to others in the U.S. delegation. The negotiations at the gathering, known as COP27, have been stalled for days over questions of whether climate-vulnerable nations should receive compensation for the “loss and damages” of global warming, and, if so, who should pay.

Talks had been advancing, though, in intense hours of bargaining on Friday. It wasn’t immediately clear at what point Kerry tested positive for the coronavirus or when he had to duck out of the conversations, nor to what extent he was feeling well enough to stay up as negotiations drag late into the night. At a public appearance on Thursday, Kerry sounded hoarse at a presentation of a pledge to reduce methane emissions.

“Hello, everybody. Good afternoon. And as you can tell from my profoundly low voice today, I have a cold,” he said Thursday. “But I’ve tested [for covid], so I’m okay.”

Kerry, who as secretary of state in the Obama administration helped orchestrate the 2015 Paris climate agreement, is known for his intense travel schedule and his affinity for putting in long hours of face-to-face talks.

Kerry, 78, “is fully vaccinated and boosted,” Smith said. “He is working with his negotiations team and foreign counterparts by phone to ensure a successful outcome of COP27.”

Kerry’s deputies, Sue Biniaz and Trigg Talley, are experienced climate negotiators, and diplomats from outside the United States said that they assumed that the talks would be able to continue more or less normally, even with Kerry working remotely or partially sidelined.

But one said that his illness “doesn’t help” the end stage of the talks, noting that Kerry’s personal, long-standing relationship with China’s top negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, is difficult to substitute, and that personal contact is sometimes far more effective than remote efforts when clinching tricky negotiations. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the possible consequences of Kerry’s illness.

As COP27 nears deadline, Europe makes ‘final offer’ for climate deal

“It’s obviously not ideal timing for John Kerry to have contracted covid. In these final hours, delegates are huddling together to work out compromises, and things can be fast moving,” Mohamed Adow, director of the Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa, said in a text message late Friday.

“This will require some careful management from the Egyptian Presidency and means countries will have to work even harder to make the most of the time left available before the summit wraps up.”

Neither of the two U.N. climate conferences held during the pandemic have released covid case numbers in real-time, but people who have attended both this year’s gathering and last year’s in Glasgow, Scotland say that they know far more people with covid this year than last, when cases were extremely rare.

Tim Puko in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

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