The discovery of a new coronavirus variant has sent a chill through much of the world as nations raced to halt air travel, markets plunged and scientists held emergency meetings to weigh the exact risks, which were largely unknown.
A World Health Organisation panel named the variant Omicron and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the Delta variant, the world’s most prevalent.
The panel said early evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection.
Medical experts, including the WHO, warned on Friday against any overreaction before the variant that originated in southern Africa was better understood.
But a jittery world feared the worst nearly two years after Covid-19 emerged and triggered a pandemic that has killed more than five million people around the globe.
British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said that the new version may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and render vaccines less effective.
“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” Mr Javid said.
Some nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa, and stocks plunged in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 800 points at the start of trading. The price of oil plunged 7%.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said the German Health Minister, Jens Spahn, amid a huge rise in cases in the 27-nation European Union, which recommended a ban on flights from southern African nations.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights “should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules”.
She insisted on extreme caution, warning that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months.
Belgium became the first EU country to announce a case of the variant. It involved a person who had travelled from abroad.
“It’s a suspicious variant. We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant,” said Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke.
Israel, one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, announced on Friday that it had also detected the country’s first case of the new variant in a traveller who had returned from Malawi. The person and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were looking into their exact vaccination status.
The new variant immediately stoked fears of more pandemic-related economic turmoil.
“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley of foreign exchange broker Oanda.
Oil prices plunged, with US crude off 6.7% at 73.22 US dollars (£54.91) per barrel and the international Brent benchmark off 5.6% at 77.64 US dollars (£58.23), both unusually large moves for a single day. The pandemic caused oil prices to plunge during the initial outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 because travel restrictions reduced demand for fuel.
Airlines shares were hammered, with Lufthansa off 12.4%, IAG, the parent of British Airways and Iberia, off 14.4%, Air France-KLM down 8.9% and easyJet falling 10.9%.
Speaking before the EU announcement, Dr Michael Ryan, head of emergencies at the WHO, warned against “knee-jerk responses”.
“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation, everyone is closing borders and restricting travel. It’s really important that we remain open and stay focused,” Dr Ryan said.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention agreed, and strongly discouraged any travel bans on countries that reported the new variant. In a statement, it said past pandemic experience had shown that such travel bans had “not yielded a meaningful outcome”.
The UK banned flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries from noon on Friday and announced that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
Germany said its flight ban could be enacted as soon as Friday night. Mr Spahn said flights returning from South Africa would only be able to transport German citizens home, and travellers would need to go into quarantine for 14 days whether vaccinated or not.
Germany has seen record daily case numbers in recent days and on Thursday surpassed 100,000 deaths from Covid-19.
Italy’s health ministry also announced measures to ban entry for anyone who had been in seven southern African nations — South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini — in the past 14 days. The Netherlands and the Czech Republic planned similar measures.
The Japanese government announced that Japanese nationals traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho would have to quarantine in government-dedicated accommodation for 10 days and take Covid-19 tests on the third, sixth and 10th days. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals.
The South African government said that the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering “seems to have been rushed”, citing the fact that the WHO had yet to recommend next steps.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads, and many new variants, including those with potentially risky mutations, often die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadlier, but sorting out the exact dangers of new variants takes time.
The WHO’s technical working group is to meet on Friday to assess the new variant — currently identified as B.1.1.529 — and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet. It said coronavirus infections had jumped 11% in Europe in the past week, the only region in the world where Covid-19 continues to rise.
The WHO’s Europe director, Dr Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by the spring.