U.S. stocks dropped sharply on Friday as a new Covid variant found in South Africa triggered a global shift away from risk assets.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 905.04 points, or 2.53%, for its worst day of the year, closing at 34,899.34. The S&P 500 lost 2.27% to close at 4,594.62, while the Nasdaq Composite slipped 2.23% to finish at 15,491.66. The Dow was down more than 1,000 points at session lows.
The downward moves came after World Health Organization officials on Thursday warned of a new Covid-19 variant that's been detected in South Africa. The new variant contains more mutations to the spike protein, the component of the virus that binds to cells, than the highly contagious delta variant. Because of these mutations, scientists fear it could have increased resistance to vaccines, though WHO said further investigation is needed. On Friday, the WHO deemed the new strain a variant of concern and named it omicron.
The United Kingdom temporarily suspended flights from six African countries due to the variant. Israel barred travel to several nations after reporting one case in a traveler. Two cases were identified in Hong Kong. Belgium also confirmed a case.
"When I read that there's one [case] in Belgium and one in Botswana, we're going to wake up next week and find one in this country. And I'm not going to recommend anyone buy anything today until we're sure that isn't going to happen, and I can't be sure that it won't," CNBC's Jim Cramer said.
Bond prices rose and yields tumbled amid a flight to safety. The yield on the benchmark U.S. 10-year Treasury note fell 15 basis points to 1.49% (1 basis point equals 0.01%). This was a sharp reversal, as yields jumped earlier in the week to above 1.68% at one point. Bond yields move inversely to prices.
The Cboe Volatility Index, often referred to as Wall Street's "fear gauge," rose to 28, its highest level in two months. Oil prices also tumbled, with U.S. crude futures down 12% and breaking below $70 per barrel.
Travel-related stocks were hit hardest, with Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean down 11% and 13.2%, respectively. United Airlines dropped more than 9%, while American Airlines dropped 8.8%. Boeing lost more than 5%, and Marriott International fell nearly 6.5%.
Bank shares retreated on fears of the slowdown in economic activity and the retreat in rates. Bank of America dropped 3.9%, and Citigroup slid 2.7%.
Industrials linked to the global economy declined, led by Caterpillar, off by 4%. Chevron dropped 2.3% as energy stocks reacted to the rollover in crude prices.
On the flip side, investors huddled into the vaccine makers. Moderna shares surged more than 20%. Pfizer shares added 6.1%.
Some of the stay-at-home plays that gained in the earlier months of the pandemic were higher again. Zoom Video and Peloton each added more than 5%.
Friday was a shortened trading day because of the Thanksgiving holiday with U.S. markets closing at 1 p.m. ET. Holiday weeks often have relatively light trading volume, which can amplify moves in the market.
"It's important to stress that very little is known at this point about this latest strain, including whether it can evade vaccines or how severe it is relative to other mutations. Therefore, it's hard to make any informed investment decisions at this point," Bespoke Investment Group's Paul Hickey said in a note to clients. "Historically speaking, chasing a rally or selling into a sharp decline (especially on a very illiquid trading day) rarely ends up being profitable, but that isn't stopping a lot of people this morning."
Several investment professionals told CNBC on Friday that the sell-off could be a buying opportunity.
"Friday is the day after Thanksgiving — probably not as many traders on the desks, with an early close today. So potentially lower liquidity is causing some of the pullback," Ajene Oden of BNY Mellon Investor Solutions said on CNBC's "Squawk Box." "But the reaction we're seeing is a buying opportunity for investors. We have to think long term."
Markets were closed Thursday for Thanksgiving and had been split earlier in the week, with the tech-heavy Nasdaq underperforming amid an upward trend in Treasury yields.
The Nasdaq finished the week down 3.5%, while the S&P 500 and Dow slumped by 2.2% and 2%, respectively.