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What’s Omicron? Here’s what we know and don’t know about the new COVID variant that’s roiling markets and air travel

November 26, 2021, 5:37 PM UTC

The latest variant of the coronavirus, which the World Health Organization has named as Omicron, has already spread from southern Africa to Europe, Israel and Hong Kong.

Over the last day, countries around the world have scrambled to stop travel from countries such as South Africa and Botswana—and in Israel’s case the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa—but on Friday a case was confirmed in Belgium that had no clear link to the region, raising the possibility that Omicron is already transmitting in the community there. It is not hard to see why stock markets, oil, and even cryptocurrencies, are plunging.

It will likely take weeks to confirm exactly what the variant—otherwise known as B.1.1.529—does, but it took just a couple days after it was first sequenced in South Africa for health experts around the world to call for air restrictions. The variant has a very high number of mutations, with 32 in the spike protein (the part that enables infection) alone. In other words, it is the most different that any COVID-19 variant has been from the one that emerged in China at the end of 2019.

But if Omicron has made one thing clear, it’s this: the pandemic is far from over.

The WHO classified Omicron as a variant of concern (VOC) on Friday, giving it a different name from the one many were expecting: Nu. It urged countries around the world to step up their genomic sequencing of COVID samples, to better track the variant.

Evading immunity

After studying the mutations, scientists fear the new variant could partially evade the immunity that people have gained against COVID-19, through either vaccinations or infection, and they are also concerned that it could prove resistant to some treatments, in particular the monoclonal antibodies that some COVID-19 patients are fed by intravenous drip.

It is likely that the new variant is the driver for a sudden upward trend in South African infections. Nearly 2,500 cases were reported there on Thursday, when just two days previously the daily tally had been under 900. The variant, which had not been identified before that earlier date, is already believed to account for three-quarters of those new infections.

This may indicate it can outcompete the otherwise ubiquitous Delta variant, when it comes to transmissibility. However, that is not yet certain, as the rise comes against the backdrop of low infection numbers. It remains unclear how the new variant compares to Delta in terms of how sick people get, and South Africa’s low full-vaccination rate—just 24% of the populace—also makes it difficult to judge how it interacts with vaccines.

Many were quick to point out that the variant’s emergence confirms warnings that leaving poorer countries under-vaccinated—through rich countries hoarding doses, and not allowing generic production of the vaccines—created breeding grounds for new COVID strains.

“Despite the repeated warnings of health leaders, our failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us. We were forewarned—and yet here we are,” wrote former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in a Friday piece for the Guardian. “Only when we reject vaccine nationalism and medical protectionism will we stop outbreaks becoming pandemics.”

Suspended flights

On Friday afternoon in Europe, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed suspending air travel to southern African countries from all 27 EU member states—a measure that had by that point already been taken by Germany, France, the Netherlands and several other EU countries. Germany, Italy and Austria have reportedly now also introduced heavier entry restrictions for people who recently visited the southern African countries.

“I have spoken about the situation in several phone calls and video conferences with scientists and vaccine manufacturers today,” von der Leyen said in a statement. “They too fully support such precautionary measures to avoid international spreading of this concerning variant.”

The WHO said travel restrictions should only be imposed after following a “risk-based and scientific approach,” and indicated it was too soon to do so now. The African Union’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) also said Friday that it “strongly discourages the imposition of travel ban for people originating from countries that have reported this variant.”

“In fact, over the duration of this pandemic, we have observed that imposing bans on travelers from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded a meaningful outcome,” the Africa CDC said, calling instead for measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

The tourist withdrawal will be a terrible blow to the South African economy, of which tourism constituted around 7% before the pandemic struck. The South African government had been expecting to see the next wave of the pandemic strike the country in late December or January; it is now clear that it has arrived early.

Market pain

At the open of trading on Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 2.4%, and the S&P 500 by 1.4%. By that point, Europe’s bourses were already firmly in the red, with the Stoxx 600 index down 3.1% and the U.K.’s FTSE 100 down 3.2%.

Airline stocks were particularly hammered, with Delta down 8%, Lufthansa down 11%, and IAG—owner of British Airways and Iberia—down a whopping 14%. Oil was down as much as 10%. Tech stocks were mildly bruised, with the Nasdaq 100 down 1.3%. On the flipside, the stocks of vaccine makers soared: Moderna up 23%, and BioNTech up 15.5%.

BioNTech and Pfizer said they would know within two weeks whether their COVID-19 vaccine is effective against the new variant.

This article was updated on Nov. 26 to clarify the naming of the new variant.

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