BRUSSELS -- A slew of countries moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday, and stocks plunged in Asia and Europe in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn, amid a massive spike in cases in the 27-country European Union.
Within a few days of the discovery of the new variant, it has already affected a jittery society that is sensitive to bad COVID-19 news, with deaths around the globe standing at well more than 5 million.
There are fears the new variant could be even more contagious than the current predominant one and could bypass the effectiveness of the vaccination campaigns.
“Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers. "We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment."
Israel, one of the world's most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it has detected the country’s first case of the new variant in a traveler who returned from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases have been placed in isolation. It said all three are vaccinated but it is currently looking into their exact vaccination status.
The new variant immediately affected stock markets around the world. Major indexes fell in Europe and Asia, and Dow Jones futures dipped 800 points ahead of the market opening in the U.S.
“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley of foreign exchange broker Oanda.
Oil prices plunged, with US. crude off 6.7%, at $73.22 per barrel, and the international Brent benchmark off 5.6%, at $77.64, both unusually large moves for a single day. The pandemic caused oil prices to plunge during the initial outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 because travel restrictions reduced demand for fuel.
Airlines shares were hammered, with Lufthansa off 12.4%; IAG, the parent of British Airways and Iberia, off 14.4%; Air France-KLM down 8.9%; and easyJet falling 10.9%
The World Health Organization cautioned not to jump to conclusions too fast.
Speaking before the EU announcement, Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the WHO, said that “it’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses."
“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel. It’s really important that we remain open, and stay focused,” Ryan said.
That quickly fell on deaf ears.
The U.K. announced it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a novel coronavirus test.
Germany said its flight ban could be enacted as soon as Friday night. Spahn said airlines coming back from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home, and travelers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days whether they are vaccinated or not.
Germany has seen new record daily case numbers in recent days and passed the mark of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.
Italy's health ministry also announced measures to ban entry into Italy of anyone who has been in seven southern African countries -- South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini -- in the past 14 days because of the new variant. The Netherlands is planning similar measures.
The Japanese government announced that from Friday, Japanese nationals traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodation for 10 days and do a COVID test on Day 3, Day 6 and Day 10. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health effect can take time.
Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa.
The WHO's technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.
It says coronavirus infections jumped 11% in Europe in the last week, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise. The WHO’s Europe director, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by the spring.
Lorne Cook of the Associated Press in Brussels, Colleen Barry in Milan, Pan Pylas in London, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Switzerland, Mike Corder in The Hague, and Dave McHugh and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this story.