The discovery of a new variant of a coronavirus called Omicron sparked a global panic Friday as countries rushed to suspend travel from southern Africa and stock markets on both sides of the Atlantic experienced their steepest drop in more than a year.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said Omicron could spread faster than other forms, and preliminary evidence suggests there is an increased risk of reinfection.
Epidemiologists have warned that imposing travel restrictions may be too late to stop the global spread of Omicron. The new mutations were first discovered in South Africa and have since been identified in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.
The United States will restrict travel from South Africa and neighboring countries beginning Monday, a senior Biden administration official said, Reuters reported.
Canada said it was closing its borders with those countries, following flight bans announced by Britain, the European Union and other countries.
But it may take weeks for scientists to fully understand the mutations of this variant and see if existing vaccines and treatments are effective against it. Omicron is the fifth variant of concern identified by the WHO.
According to the U.K. Health Safety Agency, this variant has a spike protein that differs significantly from the protein of the original coronavirus on which vaccines are based, raising concerns about the effectiveness of existing vaccines.
Scientists have issued similar warnings.
“This new variant of the COVID-19 virus is a serious concern. It’s the most heavily mutated version of the virus we’ve seen to date,” said Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick in Britain.
“Some of the mutations, similar to changes we’ve seen in other worrisome variants, are associated with increased transmissibility and partial resistance to immunity caused by vaccination or natural infection.”
These concerns hit financial markets, especially airline and other travel-sector stocks, as well as oil, which has fallen about $10 a barrel.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (.DJI) was down 2.5%, its worst performance since late October 2020, and European stocks (.STOXX) had their worst day in 17 months.
Cruise operators Carnival Corp (CCL.N), Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL.N) and Norwegian Cruise Line each fell more than 10%, and shares of United Airlines (UAL.O), Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) and American Airlines (AAL.O) fell nearly as much.
In the two years since the coronavirus was first identified in central China, it has swept the world, infecting 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 strain.
“It’s likely that this virus is already in other places. And if we close the door now, it will be too late,” said Ben Cowling of the University of Hong Kong.