The United States and the European Union joined the United Kingdom and other nations on Friday to restrict air travel from the southern region of Africa due to fears over a new variant of the coronavirus found in South Africa.
Although there is only very early information about the variant, stocks plunged to their lowest point of 2021.
Scientists say the strain has a high number of mutations and is likely already sparking a jump in new cases around Johannesburg.
The variant, which was referred to as the B1.1.529 variant until the World Health Organization assigned it the Greek letter omicron, has been linked to positive cases in South Africa. Travelers from the country are also believed to have brought the variant to Hong Kong and Botswana.
The WHO’s technical working group met about the new variant on Friday to assess the situation and determine whether omicron should be labeled a variant of interest, meaning it has genetic changes to the original, or one of concern, which means it can spread more easily or is more resistant to therapeutics and public health measures. The group declared it a variant of concern.
“Early analysis shows that this variant has a large number of mutations that require and will undergo further study. It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has,” the organization said in a statement emailed to HuffPost.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN on Friday that there’s no indication the variant is in the U.S. right now, but that American scientists will meet with their South African colleagues to discuss it.
“It’s something that has emerged in South Africa and seems to be spreading at a reasonably rapid rate, in the sense of when they do test positivity, they’re seeing that it’s a bit more widespread in South Africa than was originally felt a couple of days ago,” he said.
Fauci said the U.S. is in the process of testing the variant to find out if it evades the current vaccines, and that any decision on travel bans would depend on scientific data.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 700 points at the start of trading on Friday, and oil prices dropped by 7%.
European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recommended that member countries suspend flights from southern African nations until more is learned about the new variant. The first case of it in the European Union was announced in Belgium.
South African officials sounded the alarm on the variant Thursday, warning that the variant is on the move.
“You can be rest assured that as people move in the next coming weeks, this [variant] will be all over,” Dr. Joe Phaahla, South Africa’s health minister, said at a media briefing. “Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential rise [in cases].”
Several variants of COVID-19 have been cause for concern as the virus mutates, including the highly transmissible delta strain. Mutations are a prime fear among health officials, who worry new strains of the coronavirus could bypass the effectiveness of vaccines that have aided the reopening of society and limited severe illness and death among inoculated people.
Tulio de Oliveira, a professor at South Africa’s Network for Genomic Surveillance, said the new variant announced Thursday has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” including more than 30 mutations in its spike proteins, which is responsible for the virus’s transmissibility.
“We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast,” de Oliveira said at the briefing, per the AP. “We do expect to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks.”
Cases in South Africa had remained low in recent months, but the country is dealing with a new wave of infections that increased quickly this week. More than 1,200 cases were found on Wednesday, a figure that jumped to nearly 2,500 on Thursday.
The British government took immediate steps amid concern over its spread, banning flights from South Africa and five other African nations from noon on Friday. Those who have recently arrived from the nations will be required to take a test.
U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Friday there were “no detected cases” on the new variant in the country, but there was “huge international concern” over it.
France, Israel, Singapore, Germany, Italy and Japan have also moved independently to restrict air travel from several southern African nations.
The European Union’s ban will apply to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, according to the BBC.
The United States will ban flights from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
Phaahla said the latest surge should encourage South Africans to renew their focus on vaccination to prevent COVID-19 infection, calling jabs a “critical tool” to end the pandemic.
“The fact of the matter is that we also have an additional tool, which is vaccination, which will help us to avert serious illness and ending up in hospitals, ICU and succumbing to this virus,” Phaahla said.
About 41% of South Africans have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
This article has been updated throughout.
Sara Boboltz contributed to this report.