THIS MORNING: World, meet Omicron.
Covid is back in global headlines in a big way after the emergence of a new variant in southern Africa caused what can only be called “restrained panic” across the world. Just a day after the World Health Organization designated the so-called Omicron strain as a “variant of concern,” travel bans are back in vogue as cases began popping up around Europe — and financial markets tanked.
What we know about Omicron: According to the WHO, the variant has “a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning” and early evidence suggests that (a) it may be transmitted more easily, (b) that it could be able to dodge existing vaccines, and (c) that there could be a greater risk of reinfection for folks who have already had covid. Known as B.1.1.529, the variant was first found by scientists working in Botswana and Hong Kong before being discovered in South Africa amid a recent spike in cases in the country.
And what we don’t: The jury is still out on whether the current generation of covid vaccines will be as effective against the variant. Worryingly, scientists have said that the variant has an “unprecedented” number of mutations to the spike protein — the part of the virus targeted by vaccines — but stressed that we do not yet have enough information to say whether it is more resistant to vaccines or more transmissible. The WHO has not yet commented on the efficacy of vaccines with Omicron.
Cue the travel bans and restrictions: Much of the world — including, the US, Canada, the EU and much of our region — has moved to quarantine southern Africa and has suspended flights with six countries in the region. Israel has gone so far as to plan to completely shut its borders after detecting its first case yesterday. The UK has moved to reinstate mandatory mask-wearing after detecting several cases, while cases are now spreading in the EU, where several countries have already reimposed some lockdown restrictions amid huge case numbers.
We hate to cosplay Captain Hindsight here, but this feels like it was all too predictable: An almost inevitable consequence of the absurdly unequal distribution of vaccines across the world where the richest countries have drip-fed doses to the global south and hoarded the bulk for themselves. Now, some of the poorest parts of the world are now being punished by the same countries that deliberately prevented them from adequately vaccinating their populations. But we digress…
MARKET WATCH- Omicron is delivering a beating to stocks in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Vix — a measure of volatility that’s often called the “fear index” — has shot up, and oil had its biggest one-day drop in price since August 2020, setting up a tense meeting of OPEC+ this coming Thursday. The Financial Times and Bloomberg have more.
WATCH THIS SPACE- There was news over the weekend that non-resident travelers would be allowed to fly directly to Saudi Arabia from Egypt regardless of vaccine status starting this coming Wednesday (subject to certain restrictions and requirements). Omicron’s appearance could see that policy change in a hurry, so keep an eye out for travel warnings.