This article has been updated to reflect that the World Health Organization held an emergency meeting on Nov. 26 and gave the new covid variant the Greek alphabet name Omicron.
The discovery of a new, fast-spreading coronavirus variant from Botswana caused flights to be banned with just hours of warning to the U.K., Israel, and a growing number of European countries from South Africa and five other Southern African countries.
Stock and crypto markets were hit hard on news of the travel restrictions, with Bitcoin’s 7-percent-plus overnight decline suggesting that the world’s No. 1 cryptocurrency has not yet been accepted as a safe haven.
In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants. This time, restrictions came within hours after South African scientists announced a concerning new coronavirus variant, New York Times reported. At least 10 countries around the world including the U.K., Netherlands and Israel temporarily halted flights from these southern African countries: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), and Lesotho. Singapore, Italy, France and Israel also put Mozambique on their red lists. Starting Saturday, Japan said travelers from Southern Africa must quarantine for 10 days and take four tests during that time.
Researchers who track coronavirus mutations spent the past week studying a new covid variant detected this month in Botswana, FT reported. The variant has also been detected in South Africa, Hong Kong and Belgium, and it may be vaccine-resistant. If that’s true, many countries may have to reintroduce lockdowns and restrictions. This is the latest in a growing list of 1,500+ recognized Sars-Cov-2 virus variants to emerge since the pandemic began.
The virus constantly changes with every replication bringing new mutations on the string of 30,000 nucleotides that make up its genome. Although the mutations usually fizzle out, each new covid variant brings the possibility of a virus that can produce a higher viral load, bind more easily to cells in the airways or evade the body’s immune defenses, FT reported.
Experts agree that global vaccinations helped slow the mutations — more than 53 percent of the world population has had the first dose — but scientists worry that a sudden virus mutation could throw the global pandemic response and vaccination efforts off course.
The World Health Organization held an emergency meeting Friday and gave the new covid variant the Greek alphabet name Omicron.
Stock futures and cryptocurrency prices fell Friday and Treasury yields slumped as investors got rid of riskier assets and piled into safe havens over concern that travel restrictions will wreck the global economic recovery. The Dow Jones was down 900 points. Investors went for safe-haven assets, pushing yields on 10-year Treasury notes from 1.644 percent before Thanksgiving to 1.537 percent. Yields, which move in the opposite direction to prices, fell to 1.505 percent, on course for their biggest daily decline since the March 2020 market panic.
Gold, seen as a safe haven when riskier assets fall, rose more than 1 percent to $1,809. Bitcoin fell 7.6 percent in 24 hours to less than $54,000 and was trading at $54,630 as of this writing. Ether was down more than 13 percent to trade at $4,109 as of this writing.
Investors bought shares of companies expected to benefit from restrictions and sold those likely to suffer. Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna were among the winners, gaining 5.6 percent and 8.3 percent in premarket trading. Netflix and DoorDash, which benefited from lockdowns in the past, rose 2.3 percent and 3.2 percent. United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta fell 7-percent-plus ahead of the opening bell. Cruise stocks took a hit and oil producers Exxon Mobil and Chevron fell more than 4 percent each.
Bitcoin’s price decline amid risk aversion in traditional markets suggests the cryptocurrency has yet to find acceptance as a safe haven, Omkar Godbole wrote for Coindesk.
However, lockdowns could worsen supply chain disruptions and push inflation higher – “a positive for bitcoin, given it is widely perceived as a store of value asset,” Godbole wrote. JPMorgan analysts said that Bitcoin’s rally in October was mainly because of rising inflation expectations and Bitcoin’s appeal as a hedge against inflation.
Vulnerable to U.S. Federal Reserve policy tightening, Bitcoin fell sharply on Nov. 10 after the unexpectedly heated U.S. consumer price index reinforced fears of an early interest rate hike. The CPI is at a 30-year high. If it keeps rising, the Fed could prioritize inflation control over growth by reducing the money supply to help slow the domestic currency from inflation. Unwinding stimulus could lead to asset price deflation.
The Fed has said that it would be willing to raise interest rates sooner than expected.
Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, said he was worried about the variant, which was responsible for about 90 percent of the 1,100 covid cases reported on Wednesday in the Johannesburg/Gauteng province area.
“The key question to be answered is what exactly is the (variant’s) effect on the vaccines,” he said.
Adam Webb, chief investment officer of Chicago-based Blue Creek Capital Management, said, “If the announcement is, the vaccine works on this, back up we go. If the vaccines don’t work against it, then good night Vienna.”
Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 74: Jamarlin Martin Jamarlin returns for a new season of the GHOGH podcast to discuss Bitcoin, bubbles, and Biden. He talks about the risk factors for Bitcoin as an investment asset including origin risk, speculative market structure, regulatory, and environment. Are broader financial markets in a massive speculative bubble?