- The World Health Organization will meet Friday to address the emergence of the B.1.1.529 variant, which South African scientists have said contains more than 30 mutations to the spike protein.
- Many of these mutations are linked to increased antibody resistance and could affect the variant's behavior with regard to vaccines, treatments and transmissibility, health officials have said.
Global markets went into a tailspin Friday following news of a heavily-mutated Covid-19 variant first detected in southern Africa.
The World Health Organization will meet on Friday to address the emergence of the B.1.1.529 variant, which South African scientists have said contains more than 30 mutations to the spike protein, the component of the virus that binds to cells. This is significantly more than the now-dominant Delta variant, itself highly contagious.
Many of these mutations are linked to increased antibody resistance and could affect the variant's behavior with regard to vaccines, treatments and transmissibility, health officials have said, though the WHO has said further investigation is needed to better understand the implications.
The pan-European Stoxx 600 dropped 2.8% by mid-afternoon in Europe, with travel stocks taking heavy losses along with the oil and gas sector, as oil prices tanked.
International benchmark Brent crude was down 5% at $78.15 per barrel during afternoon trade in Europe, while U.S. crude fell more than 5.5% to $74.08.
Stateside, U.S. stock futures pointed to an opening loss of more than 700 points on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, while markets in Asia-Pacific fell sharply overnight, with Hong Kong's Hang Seng index and Japan's Nikkei 225 each shedding more than 2.5%.
The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note dropped by more than 10 basis points to 1.5345% at 4 a.m. ET. The yield on the 30-year Treasury bond fell to 1.8714%. Yields move inversely to prices and 1 basis point is equal to 0.01%. Spot gold was up by around $18 to $1,807 per troy ounce.
The variant has been detected in a Hong Kong quarantine hotel in a traveler from South Africa, with one individual across the hall also reportedly affected and remaining travelers quarantined separately. Cases have also been reported so far in Botswana, Israel and Belgium.
The U.K. government imposed a ban on flights from South Africa and Botswana, where cases of the new variant have also been reported, along with Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe, from noon on Friday until 4 a.m. on Sunday. From then, a mandatory 10-day quarantine period will be enforced on travelers from those countries.
Some analysts have suggested that the starkness of the market moves might be exacerbated by thinner trading volumes due to the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. U.S. markets were closed Thursday and will only operate until noon on Friday.
Cryptocurrencies did not avoid the hit either. Bitcoin sank 7% in the last 24 hours to $54,561, according to Coin Metrics data, its lowest level since Oct. 8. The cryptocurrency is down 20% from an all-time high of nearly $69,000 which it hit earlier this month.
Bitcoin has often been described by its proponents as "digital gold," a reference to the yellow metal's status as a so-called safe haven asset.
Crypto investors say the virtual currency offers a store of value as well as a hedge against inflation. Other cryptocurrencies also fell sharply Friday. Ether, the second-biggest crypto, plunged more than 10% to $4,007, while XRP slumped 10% to around 95 cents.
More cautious central banks
Geoffrey Yu, senior market strategist at BNY Mellon, told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe" on Friday that some corners of the market might believe that the news of this new variant would give the Federal Reserve reason to pause on its normalization of monetary policy, though he didn't necessarily agree with that view.
Yu said that the recent resurgence of Covid cases in Europe, even before the news of this latest variant emerged, showed that "we are still going to be dealing with this for some time, and there will be rounds of risk aversions that will hit markets, due to concerns over the pandemic."
Emmanuel Cau, head of European equity strategy at Barclays, said with many major stock markets at or near all-time highs, a pullback seems "logical."
"We have advised a more barbell sector allocation and downside hedges at these levels, but we believe resilient growth and patient central banks should continue to provide cushion on a medium-term horizon, while investors have dry powder to buy dips," Cau said in an email Friday.
"What is key, is to find out whether current vaccines remain effective against the variants, or not. Covid uncertainty might force central banks to err on the side of caution."
- CNBC's Vicky McKeever and Ryan Browne contributed to this report.