A new coronavirus variant leads to global concern, travel bans and market jitters

Man in glove and face mask holds a vial.
A vile containing Pfizer vaccine to be administered is seen ahead of the launch of the VaxuMzansi National Vaccine Day Campaign in South Africa on Wednesday. (Rajesh Jantilal /Getty Images)

Stock markets around the world tumbled on Friday after scientists in South Africa identified a new, fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus.

Virologists are rushing to learn more about the variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 that was first identified in Botswana, and which is rapidly outcompeting other versions of the virus in the region of South Africa that includes Johannesburg.

The variant, currently denominated B.1.1.529, reportedly could have far more mutations than those displayed by the delta variant, which became the dominant variant in most of the world over the summer.

It’s not clear yet whether the mutations make this variant more infectious or whether it causes more severe illness, but researchers say the high number of mutations to the “spike proteins” — the focus of a body’s immune response — may make it more able to get past the body’s defenses.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president for COVID-19, said on CNN on Friday that he believed data and testing were needed to learn more about the variant. “There’s no indication that it is right now” in the United States, he said.

Despite the spread of this variant, the number of COVID-19 cases in South Africa is still well below the delta surge earlier this year. But numbers are beginning to tick up again.

The European Commission recommended its members block travel from countries where the variant has been found, as Belgium reported a case, according to the BBC. The broadcaster said in addition to Botswana and South Africa, cases have also shown up in Hong Kong and Israel.

Countries restricting flights from South Africa include Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore, The New York Times reported.

Fauci also told CNN that no decision has been made yet on whether the U.S. will impose a travel ban. “You don’t want to say you’re going to do it until you have some scientific reason to do it,” Fauci said. “That’s why we’re rushing now to get that scientific data.”

Global stock markets and oil prices fell Friday on concerns about travel restrictions and other measures to curb the spread of the new variant. Oil prices plunged sharply in European markets, along with shares of major airlines.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 900 points, while the Nasdaq and the S&P 500 were down more than 2%. Trading volume was light on U.S. markets, which are scheduled to close early for the holiday.

“This news is putting the handbrake on markets,” Peter Rutter, the head of equities Royal London Asset Management, told Reuters.

“There is a huge range of outcomes that can happen. We could have serious lockdowns or we get no lockdowns and a booming economy,” Rutter said. “The very fact we don’t know, is what’s concerning the market.”

The World Health Organization has called an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the variant. If it’s determined to be of special interest or concern, it’s likely to be named “nu,” the next Greek letter in the current naming scheme.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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