New variant of coronavirus causes global concern, travel bans and market worries

  • By Martin Kaste and Joel Rose/NPR

(undated) – Stock markets around the world fell on Friday after South African scientists identified a new, fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus.

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

The variant, currently named B.1.1.529, may have many more mutations than those displayed by the delta variant, which has become the dominant variant in most of the world over the summer.

It’s not yet known whether mutations make this variant more infectious or cause more severe disease, but researchers say the high number of mutations in “spike proteins” – the center of a body’s immune response – can make it more apt to get past the body’s defenses.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser for COVID-19, told CNN on Friday that he believes data and testing are needed to learn more about the variant. “There is 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 of earlier this year. But the numbers are starting to climb again.

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

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

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

Global stock markets and oil prices fell on Friday on concerns over travel restrictions and other measures aimed at curbing the spread of the new variant. Oil prices fell sharply in European markets, as did shares of major airlines.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 900 points, while the Nasdaq and S&P 500 fell more than 2%. Trading volume was light in US markets, which are expected to close early for the holidays.

“This news puts the brakes on markets,” Peter Rutter, head of equities at Royal London Asset Management, told Reuters.

“There is a huge range of outcomes that can occur. We could have severe lockdowns or we don’t get lockdowns and a booming economy,” Rutter said. “The very fact that we don’t know is what the market is about.”

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

Teresa H. Sadler