The discovery of a new coronavirus variant sent a chill through much of the world Friday as nations raced to halt air travel, markets fell sharply and scientists held emergency meetings to weigh the exact risks, which were largely unknown.
A World Health Organization 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 World Health Organization, warned 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 5 million people around the globe.
“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.
There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said.
Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear if the new variant would pose a significant public health threat. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.
The 27-nation European Union imposed a temporary ban on air travel from southern Africa, and stocks tumbled in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 index was down 2.3%, on pace for its worst day since February. The price of oil plunged nearly 12%.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. The member nations of the EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travelers 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 European Union country to announce a case of the variant.
“It’s a suspicious variant,” Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said. “We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”
It has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert. Abroad, the variant “seems to be spreading at a reasonably rapid rate,” he told CNN. And although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, “we don’t know that for sure right now.”
Showing how complicated the spread of a variant can be, the Belgian case involved a traveler who returned to Belgium from Egypt on Nov. 11 but did not became sick with mild symptoms until Monday, according to professor Marc Van Ranst, who works for the scientific group overseeing the Belgian government’s COVID-19 response.
Israel, one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it also detected its first case of the new variant in a traveler who returned from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were looking into the travelers’ exact vaccination status.
After a 10-hour overnight trip, passengers aboard KLM Flight 598 from Capetown, South Africa, to Amsterdam were held on the edge of the runway Friday morning at Schiphol airport for four hours pending special testing. Passengers aboard a flight from Johannesburg were also being isolated and tested.
“It’s ridiculous. If we didn’t catch the dreaded bugger before, we’re catching it now,” said passenger Francesca de’ Medici, a Rome-based art consultant who was on the flight.
Some experts said the variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.