The discovery of a new coronavirus variant triggered global alarm on Friday as countries rushed to suspend travel from southern Africa and stock markets on both sides of the Atlantic suffered their biggest falls in more than a year.
The United States will restrict travel from South Africa — where the new mutation was discovered — and neighbouring countries effective Monday, a senior Biden administration official said.
Going further, Canada said it was closing its borders to those countries, following bans on flights announced by Britain, the European Union and others.
The World Health Organization (WHO) met on Friday to discuss the risks presented by the variant, which they named omicron and declared a variant of concern, a label only given to four variants to date.
It could take weeks for scientists to fully understand the mutations. Health authorities are seeking to determine if omicron is more transmissible or infectious than other variants and if vaccines are effective against it.
Travel restrictions called ‘unjustified’
South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla called the travel restrictions “unjustified,” though he also said preliminary studies suggested the new variant may be more transmissible.
“This new variant of the COVID-19 virus is very worrying. It is the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen to date,” said Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Britain’s Warwick university.
“Some of the mutations that are similar to changes we’ve seen in other variants of concern are associated with enhanced transmissibility and with partial resistance to immunity induced by vaccination or natural infection.”
Those worries pummeled financial markets, especially stocks of airlines and others in the travel sector, and oil, which tumbled by about $10 a barrel.
Meanwhile, the scramble to ban air travel from southern Africa left hundreds of passengers on two KLM flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg stranded on the tarmac for hours at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport before they were transferred for testing.
“Bus to a hall to a huge queue. I can see COVID testers in bright blue PPE far on the distance. Still no snacks for the sad babies,” tweeted New York Times journalist Stephanie Nolen, a passenger on the flight from Johannesburg.
‘Most significant variant’
Several other countries including India, Japan, Israel, Turkey, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates also toughened travel restrictions.
In Geneva, WHO had earlier warned against restricting travel for now.
“It’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses here,” said WHO’s emergencies director Mike Ryan, praising South Africa’s public health institutions for detecting the new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution met today to review what is known about the <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> variant B.1.1.529.<br>They advised WHO that it should be designated a Variant of Concern.<br>WHO has named it Omicron, in line with naming protocols <a href=”https://t.co/bSbVas9yds”>https://t.co/bSbVas9yds</a> <a href=”https://t.co/Gev1zIt1Ek”>pic.twitter.com/Gev1zIt1Ek</a>
The variant has a spike protein that is dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that current vaccines are based on, the U.K. Health Security Agency said, raising fears about how current vaccines will fare.
“As scientists have described, [this is] the most significant variant they’ve encountered to date,” British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News.
On Wall Street the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 2.5 per cent, tracking its worst day since late October 2020, and European stocks had their worst day in 17 months as financial markets digested the news.
Cruise operators Carnival Corp, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line plunged more than nine per cet each, while shares in United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines slumped almost 10 per cent.
‘Most likely this virus is already in other places’
Coronavirus has swept the world in the two years since it was first identified in central China, infecting almost 260 million people and killing 5.4 million.
One epidemiologist in Hong Kong said it may be too late to tighten travel restrictions against the latest variant.
“Most likely this virus is already in other places. And so if we shut the door now, it’s going to be probably too late,” said Ben Cowling of the University of Hong Kong.
Belgium identified Europe’s first case, adding to cases found in Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.
Brazilian health regulator Anvisa recommended that travel be restricted from some African countries, but President Jair Bolsonaro appeared to dismiss such measures.
Bolsonaro has been widely criticized by public health experts for his management of the pandemic, railing against lockdowns and choosing not to get vaccinated. Brazil has the world’s second-highest death toll from the virus, behind only the United States.
Discovery of the new variant comes with the arrival of winter in Europe and the U.S. and Canada, with more people gathering indoors in the run-up to Christmas, providing a breeding ground for infection.
Friday also marked the start of the holiday shopping period in the U.S., when retailers offer discounts, and shoppers were finding stores less crowded than in years past.
Kelsey Hupp, 36, was at the Macy’s department store in downtown Chicago on Black Friday.
“Chicago is pretty safe and masked and vaccinated. I got my booster so I’m not too concerned about it,” she said.