What we know about the new virus variant that is shaking the markets

(Bloomberg) – A new variant of coronavirus that causes Covid-19 – called B.1.1.529 – has been identified in South Africa, and officials say it is worrying. Fears of a new strain could boost outbreaks in many countries, strain health systems, potentially avoid vaccines and complicate efforts to reopen economies and borders, sending a wave of risk aversion across global markets Friday.

Here’s what we know so far:

1. What is different about this variant?

Researchers say that B.1.1.529 carries a large number of mutations in its peak protein, which play a key role in the virus’ penetration into cells in the body. It is also what is targeted by vaccines. Researchers are still trying to determine if it is more transmissible or more deadly than in the past.

Explains: Alpha, Delta and more. Why virus variants cause alarm: QuickTake

2. Where did it come from?

There is only speculation so far. A scientist at the UCL Genetics Institute in London said it probably developed during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV / AIDS patient. South Africa has the most 8.2 million people infected with HIV in the world. The beta variant, a mutation identified last year in South Africa, may also have come from an HIV-infected person.

Read more: The risk of Covid variants increases in S. Africa with the largest HIV epidemic

3. How widespread is it?

As of Thursday, nearly 100 cases had been detected in South Africa, where it has become the dominant strain among new infections. Early PCR test results showed that 90% of 1,100 new cases reported Wednesday in the South African province, including Johannesburg, were caused by the new variant, according to Tulio de Oliveira, a bio-informatics professor who runs gene sequencing institutions at two South African universities. In neighboring Botswana, officials recorded four cases on Monday in people who were fully vaccinated. In Hong Kong, a traveler from South Africa was found to have the variant, and another case was identified with a person in quarantine in a hotel room on the other side of the aisle.

4. What has been the reaction?

The news of the new variant hit the markets on Friday, with travel-related stocks in Asia among the biggest declines as investors predicted the negative impact it will have on travel. Britain issued a temporary ban on flights from six African countries, and Australia said it would not rule out tightening of border rules for travelers from southern Africa if the situation escalated. India stepped up the screening of incoming travelers from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong. The yen, typically seen as a safe haven asset, rose 0.4% against the dollar, while the South African rand fell to a one-year low.

For more: Shares fall, bonds jump on fear of virus strain: Markets Wrap

5. How worrying is this?

It’s too early to tell. The World Health Organization said there are fewer than 100 whole genomic sequences of the new variant available, which may add to the time it takes to study it, as well as how well current vaccines work against it. Viruses mutate all the time, with the changes sometimes making the virus weaker or sometimes making it more adept at avoiding antibodies and infecting humans.

6. What should we look for next?

The WHO convened a meeting on Friday to discuss B.1.1.529 and decide whether it would be officially designated as a variant of interest or concern. If it does, it will receive a Greek letter name under the WHO naming scheme, probably the letter “now.” Governments are also likely to take steps to control borders and travel in response to news of the variant.

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