The World Health Organization said a newly identified coronavirus variant in southern Africa was “of concern” on Friday, as countries around the world moved to restrict travelers arriving from that region to keep it from crossing their borders.
So far, only a few dozen cases of the new variant have been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. There is no proof yet that the variant is more contagious or lethal, or could diminish the protective power of vaccines, but uncertainty on those questions was one factor in the speed of countries’ move toward restrictions.
On Friday evening, the World Health Organization gave the variant the name Omicron. “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the W.H.O. said in its official description. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant.”
Earlier on Friday, the European Commission proposed that its member countries activate the “emergency brake” on travel from countries in southern Africa and other affected countries to limit the spread of the variant.
“All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, said in a statement. “And travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”
In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants. This time, however, restrictions came within hours of South Africa’s announcement. At least 10 countries around the world had announced measures before South African scientists finished a meeting with World Health Organization experts about the variant on Friday.
The United States and Canada announced restrictions on travelers arriving from countries in southern Africa. Other governments that halted or restricted flights from South Africa included Bahrain, Belgium, Britain, Croatia, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore.
The new variant, initially called B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform. On the protein that helps to create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells, the variant has 10 mutations, many more than the highly contagious Delta variant, Professor de Oliveira said.
Still, even epidemiologists who have been the most outspoken in supporting precautions against the virus urged calm on Friday, noting that little is known about the variant and that several seemingly threatening variants have come and gone in recent months.
“Substantively NOTHING is known about the new variant,” Roberto Burioni, a leading Italian virologist, wrote on Twitter, adding that people should not panic.
Stocks tumbled around the world on Friday as the news of the variant spooked markets and terrified many Europeans already exhausted by news of breakthrough infections, surging cases and rallies by vaccine skeptics.
Countries in Europe, once again the epicenter of the pandemic, were among the first to announce travel bans. Britain announced its restrictions on Thursday and put them into force on Friday.
“More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now,” Sajid Javid, the British health secretary, said on Twitter.
In the past two days, scientists in South Africa — which has a sophisticated detection system — discovered the variant after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub surrounding Johannesburg.
“This variant did surprise us — it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta,” Professor de Oliveira said.
The Biden administration will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other African countries to try to contain the new variant of the coronavirus, senior administration officials said on Friday.
Starting on Monday, the administration will prohibit travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi from coming to the United States, the officials said.
The travel ban will not apply to American citizens or lawful permanent residents, officials said. But they will need to show a negative coronavirus test before coming to the United States.
The administration made the decision after health officials in the United States consulted with South African scientists on Friday morning, and after the World Health Organization later said the new variant was “of concern” and labeled it Omicron.
Biden administration officials said they were continuing to work with health officials overseas to learn more about the variant.
The pharmaceutical company Merck said on Friday that in a final analysis of a clinical trial, its antiviral pill reduced the risk of hospitalization and death among high-risk Covid patients by 30 percent, down from an earlier estimate of 50 percent.
The lower efficacy is a disappointment for the drug, known as molnupiravir, which health officials around the world are counting on as a critical tool to save lives and reduce the burden on hospitals. It increases the importance of a similar, apparently more effective, offering from Pfizer that is also under review by the Food and Drug Administration.
A panel of advisers to the F.D.A. is set to meet on Tuesday to discuss Merck’s treatment and vote on whether to recommend authorizing it to treat high-risk Covid patients.
In briefing documents posted to the F.D.A.’s website on Friday, agency reviewers did not take a position on whether the drug should be authorized, though they found that the clinical trial data did not show any major safety concerns and that the drug was effective in preventing severe disease.
The reviewers said they had only become aware of the updated efficacy estimate earlier this week and were still reviewing the data. They said they could update their assessment when the panel meets on Tuesday.
Merck’s initial estimate that the drug reduced hospitalization and death by 50 percent came from an early look at results from 775 study participants. The updated figure announced on Friday came from more than 1,400. In the final analysis, the participants who received molnupiravir had a 6.8 percent risk of being hospitalized, and one patient died. Those who received a placebo had a 9.7 percent risk of being hospitalized, and nine died.
Dr. David Boulware, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Minnesota, said he expected the drug would still receive emergency authorization. If the expert committee endorses it and the F.D.A. heeds the recommendation, the treatment could be authorized in the United States as soon as next week.
“The reduction in hospitalization is a little bit less, but there is still a big mortality benefit if you start early,” he said.
Still, he said, molnupiravir will probably be deemed a lower-tier treatment, an alternative choice for people who can’t get or don’t want more effective treatments.
Monoclonal antibody drugs, which are typically administered intravenously in the United States, have been found to reduce hospitalizations and deaths by at least 70 percent. Pfizer’s antiviral pill, Paxlovid, which was found in a clinical trial to cut the risk of hospitalization and death by 89 percent, could become available within weeks. Fluvoxamine, a common and inexpensive antidepressant, appears to be about as effective as molnupiravir.
Meant to be dispensed at pharmacies and taken at home, Merck’s drug is the first in a new class of antiviral treatments for Covid that are expected to reach many more people than other treatments have. Public health experts say that while the pills are no substitute for vaccination, they have the potential to prevent severe illness and save lives.
Scientists are still unclear on how effective vaccines will be against the new variant flagged by a team in South Africa, which displays mutations that might resist neutralization. Only several dozen cases have been fully identified so far in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Belgium, and Israel.
The new variant, B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” with more than 30 in the spike protein alone, according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
The variant shares similarities with the Lambda and Beta variants, which are associated with an innate evasion of immunity, said Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
“All these things are what give us some concern that this variant might have not just enhanced transmissibility, so spread more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system,” Dr. Lessells said.
The new variant has largely been detected among young people, the cohort that also has the lowest vaccination rate in South Africa. Just over a quarter of those ages between 18 and 34 in South Africa are vaccinated, said Dr. Joe Phaahla, the country’s minister of health.
While cases of the variant are mainly concentrated in the country’s economic hub, particularly in the country’s administrative capital, Pretoria, it is “only a matter of time” before the virus spreads across the country as schools close and families prepare to travel for the holiday season, Dr. Phaahla said.
— Lynsey Chutel
PARIS — Protesters fired live ammunition at journalists and the police on Thursday night on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, injuring dozens of officers, one of them seriously, a spokesman for the French government said.
As in Guadeloupe, another French island to the north, the protests against Martinique’s coronavirus protocols — which require vaccinations for health care workers and a health pass to enter most public venues — have been exacerbated by long-running frustrations and anger over economic inequality with the mainland. The poverty rate in Martinique is 29.8 percent, almost twice the national level in France.
The mix of old grievances and new anger over Covid-19 rules has made the unrest particularly volatile.
“These extremely serious acts call for unanimous and unambiguous condemnation,” the French prime minister, Jean Castex, said in a tweet on Friday in response to the violent protests in Martinique’s largest city, Fort-de-France.
An arson attempt at the official residence of France’s most senior representative on the island was also reported. The local police office declined to comment on the report.
On Thursday evening, the local authorities had announced a curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. “until a return to calm.” The curfew was in response to nighttime violence that has taken place since Monday.
Nearly 150 people have been arrested in Guadeloupe and Martinique since the beginning of the crisis, according to the government spokesman, Gabriel Attal. Ten of the arrests were made on Thursday night, according to Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who said in a tweet, “Everything is being done to find those responsible.”
The central government also announced that it would extend until Dec. 31 the deadline for health care workers in Martinique and Guadeloupe to complete their coronavirus vaccinations.
— Léontine Gallois
Data delayed at least 15 minutes
Stocks around the world fell on Friday and oil prices plunged, after evidence of a new coronavirus variant in South Africa prompted some countries to reinstate travel restrictions and reignited concerns about the economic toll imposed by the pandemic.
The S&P 500 logged its worst day since February as a growing list of nations, including the United States, moved to prohibit travel from half a dozen or so African countries. The uncertainty shook a stock market that had been performing robustly, and market watchers said the heightened volatility might continue as countries assessed the risks of the variant.
The number of mutations in this new variant has raised fears that it could be especially contagious and render current vaccines less effective. But scientists haven’t come to firm conclusions yet.
“Where the market is selling off so dramatically is a product of, ‘yes, this is bad news,’ but also the fact that we have had a pretty strong run with relatively low volatility for a while,” said Kiran Ganesh, a strategist at UBS Global Wealth Management. “It’s still too early to really judge what this, this variant, is going to do.”
The S&P 500 closed 2.3 percent lower and the Nasdaq composite index dropped 2.2 percent. European stock markets fell 3 to 5 percent.
U.S. stock markets were closed on Thursday for the Thanksgiving holiday and closed early on Friday. Thin trading because of the holidays can exacerbate the swings.
Friday’s decline pulled the benchmark S&P 500 down further from a record high reached just last week. Amid supply chain disruptions and shortages of goods and workers in some sectors, investors have been preoccupied by rising prices and expectations about central banks withdrawing stimulus to combat inflation.
But the emergence of a new variant abruptly shifted their focus back to the core woes of the pandemic. A fourth wave of the virus in Europe has already led to a tightening of restrictions, including some lockdowns.
“The pandemic and Covid variants remain one of the biggest risks to markets, and are likely to continue to inject volatility,” Keith Lerner, a strategist at Truist, wrote in a note to clients.
Mr. Lerner said a modest sell-off is hardly unexpected, given the heights at which stocks have been trading. “We are not making any changes to our investment guidance at this point,” he wrote, adding that consumers and companies are much more adept at dealing with virus restrictions now.
Futures of West Texas Intermediate oil, the U.S. crude benchmark, plummeted more than 13 percent to $68.04 a barrel, the lowest since early September. The price of oil has been especially sensitive to virus restrictions that keep people at home. The drop comes just three days after United States and five other countries announced a coordinated effort to tap into their national oil stockpiles, to try to drive down rising gas prices.
Brent futures, the European benchmark, fell 11 percent to about $73 a barrel. But Mr. Ganesh said UBS forecasts that the price will to rise to $90 a barrel by March, partly in the expectation that the fears about new virus restrictions will be temporary.
Demand for the relative safety of government bonds jumped, pushing their prices up and their yields down. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury plunged 15 basis points, or 0.15 percentage points, to 1.48 percent, the biggest single-day drop since March 2020. The yield on Germany’s bund, Europe’s benchmark bond, fell 9 basis points to minus 0.34 percent.
In an echo of the market fluctuations of last year, stocks that flourished under lockdowns and quarantines rose, including Zoom and Peloton. Companies vulnerable to travel restrictions, like Carnival, the cruise company, and Boeing, the plane maker, fell.
In Asia, the Nikkei 225 in Japan closed 2.5 percent lower and the Hang Seng Index in Hong Kong declined 2.7 percent.
In Europe, energy stocks led the markets lower. The Stoxx Europe 600 index closed down 3.7 percent. The FTSE 100 in Britain dropped 3.6 percent, while major stock indexes in France and Spain fell about 5 percent.
As several countries including Britain and France rushed to restrict flights from South Africa and seven other African nations, airline stocks dropped. IAG, the parent company of British Airways, fell nearly 15 percent, the biggest decline in the FTSE 100.
“This fresh fall in confidence is the last setback the industry needed given that it’s already faced with lockdowns in Europe,” Susannah Streeter, an analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, wrote. “It’s going to take much more than a discounted ticket to calm nerves and restore optimism.”
Someday, I may appreciate the irony in this situation.
For now, I’m in my fourth hour trapped on the tarmac at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, where officials will not allow so much as a catering truck to bring us water. And an appreciation for irony is elusive.
My flight took off nearly 16 hours ago from Johannesburg, where people were abuzz with the news of the discovery of a coronavirus variant that is spreading in South Africa.
This variant has many mutations, in particular on the spike protein that helps it enter human cells, and is spreading relatively quickly around Johannesburg.
South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases shared what it knew midday on Thursday, and before I even took off, Britain had banned flights from southern Africa. Europe apparently panicked while I was somewhere over the Sahara; by the time we landed, we were told we would not be permitted off the plane.
The irony lies in the fact that I was in South Africa to report on the risk of variants emerging in countries with low vaccination coverage — and on the impressive, multilayered approach South Africa is using to try to protect global public health. I spent time in the labs of the same scientists who, yesterday, made the announcement that has left me hostage with a planeload of strangers while “the authorities” somewhere debate what to do with us.
Teeeeny bit ironic that I was IN South Africa to report on the amazing work they are doing surveilling variants, among other things.
— Stephanie Nolen (@snolen) November 26, 2021
Everyone on this flight had to show proof of a negative Covid test; most, it seems, are fully vaccinated, as I am. (We’ve all had time to chat.)
The prevailing sentiment among these restive, and thirsty, people is that South Africa is being punished for having some of the world’s most advanced study of infectious disease, a legacy of its battle with H.I.V. — and for being transparent, quickly, about what it learns.
Passengers are reading aloud to each other from news stories that say Europe intends to put us all into mandatory 14-day quarantine, regardless of our vaccination status or test results.
From our windows we can see a flight from Cape Town, also parked out here, stuck in limbo.
For now, I have plenty of time to make my way through the mountain of research that South African scientists shared with me.
The Hong Kong government said on Thursday that it had detected two cases of a new variant identified in South Africa, which scientists have warned shows a “big jump in evolution” and could limit the effectiveness of vaccines.
The infections were detected in a man who had returned to Hong Kong from South Africa this month, and later in another man staying across the hall in the same quarantine hotel. (Hong Kong requires almost all overseas arrivals to quarantine in hotels for two to three weeks.) The virus’s genetic sequence was identical in both men, suggesting airborne transmission, according to the city’s Center for Health Protection. Both men were vaccinated.
Further sequencing by the University of Hong Kong confirmed that the viruses belonged to the new variant from South Africa, officials said, though they acknowledged that information about the variant’s public health impact was “lacking at the moment.”
Some Hong Kong experts have questioned the length and efficacy of Hong Kong’s quarantines, noting that officials have recorded several cases of residents in quarantine hotels apparently infecting people who were staying in other rooms.
In the case of the latest variant infections, the government has blamed the first man for not wearing a surgical mask when opening his hotel room door, as well as “unsatisfactory air flow” in the hotel. As of Friday afternoon there had been no reports of infections in nearby rooms.
The presence of the new variant may complicate efforts to reopen the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. For months, Hong Kong officials have said that resuming quarantine-free travel between the Chinese territory and the mainland — virtually the only places in the world still pursuing a containment strategy that seeks full eradication of the virus — is their top priority, even though the strategy has damaged the city’s reputation as a global finance hub.
Mainland officials have said that Hong Kong is not doing enough to control the virus, even though the city has recorded just two locally transmitted cases in the last six months. The mainland has recently faced new domestic outbreaks; on Thursday, the National Health Commission there reported four new local cases.
On Thursday evening, Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, John Lee, said mainland officials had told him earlier in the day that Hong Kong had “basically fulfilled” the conditions to reopen the border. He said details would still need to be worked out, including the introduction of a mainland-style “health code” app that has raised privacy concerns.
Asked by a reporter whether the new variant would delay reopening with the mainland, Mr. Lee said only that the Hong Kong authorities would “ensure that adequate research and tracking are done in this regard.”
“Of course, we must manage and control any new risks,” he said.
The new variant that emerged in southern Africa could pose “a substantial risk to public health,” Britain’s health secretary, Sajid Javid, said on Friday, explaining a British decision to suspend flights and place six African countries on a quarantine list.
“This new variant is of huge international concern,” Mr. Javid said in a statement to Parliament while adding that no cases have yet been detected in the U.K.
Mr. Javid described the situation as fast moving and said there was a high degree of uncertainty around the spread of the virus and its possible impact. But he suggested that the signs were worrying.
“Early indications show that this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it,’’ he said.
Late on Thursday Britain said it was suspending flights temporarily from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe. When they start up again, British and Irish citizens returning from these countries will be required to quarantine in government-approved hotel facilities.
Mr. Javid said that assessments were being made of the situation in other nations with strong travel links to South Africa, suggesting that the list of so-called “red list” countries could grow.
“The sequence of this variant, currently called B.1.1.529, was first uploaded by Hong Kong from a case of someone traveling from South Africa,” Mr. Javid said. “Further cases have been identified in South Africa, in Botswana, and it is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries.”
Early in the pandemic the British government was criticized for delaying the introduction of its quarantine system and the swiftness of Thursday’s move reflects a desire not to repeat that mistake.
“One of the lessons of this pandemic is that we must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” said Mr. Javid.
Speaking for the opposition Labour Party, Alex Norris welcomed the move but said that the emergence of the new variant reflected the “failure of the global community to distribute the vaccine” around the world.
Nearly 20 months after pandemic lockdowns first began, governments across Europe are beginning to tighten restrictions again amid the latest wave of new coronavirus cases, threatening the gains that the region has made against the pandemic.
France is racing to offer booster shots to all adults and will not renew health passes for those who refuse. Deaths are rising in Germany, with its 68 percent vaccination rate, a worrying trend for a highly inoculated country. Austria has been in a nationwide lockdown since Monday, and made vaccinations mandatory.
In Eastern Europe, where far-right and populist groups have fueled vaccine skepticism, vaccination rates are lower than the rest of the continent. Bulgaria, where a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, is turning back to shutdowns or other restrictive measures.
The quickly deteriorating situation in Europe is worrisome for the United States, where the seven-day average of new cases has risen 24 percent in the past two weeks. (The number of new deaths reported in the United States is down 6 percent.) Trends in new cases in the United States have tended to follow Europe by a few weeks.
“Time and again, we’ve seen how the infection dynamics in Europe are mirrored here several weeks later,” Carissa F. Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, told reporters on Wednesday. “The future is unfolding before us, and it must be a wake-up call for our region because we are even more vulnerable.”
The White House insists that while new infections are on the rise, the United States can avoid European-style lockdowns.
“We are not headed in that direction,” Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said this week. “We have the tools to accelerate the path out of this pandemic: widely available vaccinations, booster shots, kids’ shots, therapeutics.”
But the chief of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that some countries had lapsed into a “false sense of security.”
He issued a warning during a news briefing on Wednesday: “While Europe is again the epicenter of the pandemic, no country or region is out of the woods.”