The discovery of a new variant of coronavirus rocked much of the world on Friday as nations tried to shut down air traffic, markets collapsed, and scientists held emergency meetings to weigh up the exact risks, which were largely unknown.
A panel of the World Health Organization named the variant “Omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible virus that is of concern, the same category that includes the delta variant, which is most common in the world. The panel said early evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection.
In response, the United States has joined the European Union and several other countries and introduced travel restrictions for visitors from southern Africa.
The White House said the US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region from Monday. No details were provided other than that the restrictions do not apply to returning U.S. citizens or permanent residents who must continue to test negative before traveling.
Medical experts, including the WHO, warned of overreaction before the southern African variant was better understood. But a nervous world feared the worst almost two years after the outbreak of COVID-19, sparking a pandemic that killed more than 5 million people around the world.
“We have to act quickly and at the earliest possible time,” UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.
There was no immediate indication of whether the variant caused more severe illness. As with other variants, some infected people show no symptoms, South African experts said. The WHO panel relied on the Greek alphabet when naming the variant Omicron, as was the case with previous main variants of the virus.
While some of the genetic changes appear worrying, it was unclear whether the new variant would pose a significant public health threat. Some earlier variants, such as the beta variant, initially worried scientists but did not spread very widely.
The 27-nation European Union temporarily banned flights from southern Africa, and stocks fell in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 index lost 2.3%, its worst day since February. The oil price collapsed by almost 12%.
“The last thing we need is a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn. The member states of the EU have seen a massive increase in the number of cases recently.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights must “be suspended until we have a clear understanding of the danger posed by this new variant, and travelers returning from this region should adhere to strict quarantine rules”.
She insisted on extreme caution, warning that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more worrisome variants of the virus that could spread around the world in a few months.”
Belgium was the first EU country to announce a case of the variant.
“It’s a suspicious variant,” said Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke. “We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”
It has yet to be proven in the United States, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US Government’s foremost infectious disease expert. Abroad, the variant seems to be “spreading at a relatively high speed,” he told CNN. And while it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, “we don’t know for sure right now”.
The Belgian case showed how complicated a variant can be to spread, and involved a traveler who had returned to Belgium from Egypt on November 11 but only fell ill with mild symptoms on Monday, according to Professor Marc Van Ranst, who is responsible for science works group that monitors the COVID-19 response of the Belgian government.
Israel, one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, announced on Friday that it had also discovered its first case of the new variant in a traveler who has returned from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases were isolated. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were investigating travelers’ exact vaccination status.
After a 10-hour night journey, passengers on board KLM Flight 598 from Cape Town, South Africa to Amsterdam were held on the edge of the runway at Schiphol Airport on Friday morning for four hours pending special tests. Passengers on board a flight from Johannesburg were also isolated and tested.
“It’s ridiculous. If we haven’t caught the dreaded bastard first, we’ll catch him now,” said passenger Francesca de ‘Medici, a Rome-based art consultant who was on the flight.
Some experts said the emergence of the variant shows how vaccine hoarding in rich countries threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Less than 6% of people in Africa are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have not yet received a single dose. These conditions can accelerate the spread of the virus and provide more opportunities for it to develop into a dangerous variant.
“This is one of the consequences of the injustice in the introduction of vaccines and why the adoption of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably fall back on all of us at some point,” said Michael Head, senior research fellow on global health at the University of Southampton, UK. He urged the group of 20 leaders “to go beyond vague promises and actually keep their promises to share cans”.
The new twist heightened investor fears that months of progress in containing COVID-19 could be reversed.
“Investors will likely shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley of currency broker Oanda.
As a sign of just how concerned Wall Street has become, the so-called fear knife of the market known as the VIX jumped 48% to a value of 26.91. This is the highest value for the volatility index since January, before vaccines were widely used.
Before the EU announcement, Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO Emergency Department Director, before “Knee Jerk Reactions”.
“We have seen in the past that the moment any kind of variation is mentioned, all borders close and travel restricts,” said Ryan. “It’s really important that we stay open and focused.”
The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed and strongly advised against travel bans for countries that reported the new variant. Experience so far has shown that such travel bans “did not produce any meaningful result”.
Still, the US announced restrictions on visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi hours after governments took similar steps.
The UK banned flights from South Africa and five other South African countries on Friday lunchtime and announced that anyone who has recently traveled from those countries will be asked to take a coronavirus test.
The Japanese government announced that Japanese nationals traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Lesotho will be quarantined in government-designated accommodations for 10 days and COVID-19 on the third, sixth, and tenth days. Have to take tests. Japan has not yet opened up to foreigners.
Fauci said U.S. public health officials spoke to South African colleagues on Friday. “We want to find out from scientist to scientist exactly what is going on.”
The WHO technical working group says coronavirus infections rose 11% over the past week in Europe, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise.
The WHO Europe Director, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent action, the continent could record 700,000 more deaths by spring.
Associate press authors Lorne Cook in Brussels, Colleen Barry in Milan, Pan Pylas in London, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Mike Corder in The Hague, Dave McHugh in Frankfurt, Carley Petesch in Dakar, Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg and Frank Jordans in Berlin have to. contributed this report.