Global financial markets have been rocked by the emergence of a potentially highly infectious variant of the virus that causes Covid-19. Airline and travel stocks were hit particularly hard on worries that the pandemic may be far from over.
Infectious disease specialists are anxious about a new strain that’s been identified in South Africa called B.1.1.529.
What has experts wary is that this variant has a high number of mutations in its spike protein, which allows the SARS-CoV-2 virus to attach to and hijack healthy human cells.
The Covid-19 vaccines now on the market are designed to neutralize that spike protein. The concern is that this new variant will be able to evade the vaccines or lessen their effectiveness.
Scientists at the World Health Organization and other public health bodies need to get a better read on the transmissibility and lethality of this new strain. There’s much we still don’t know and it will be several weeks before we do.
On November 26, the WHO characterized the variant, which it named Omicron, as a viral strain of concern.
Testing results in South Africa suggest that the new variant is expanding quickly in the province that includes Johannesburg. A traveler from that region also was identified as having the B.1.1.529 variant in Hong Kong.
United Kingdom health authorities said the R value, or effective reproduction number, of the B.1.1.529 variant in some parts of the South African province of Gauteng was at a level of 2. Anything over 1 allows for exponential spread of a virus.
Until we learn more, global markets are likely to remain edgy. The US and the United Kingdom have placed restrictions on travelers from South Africa after news of the new variant.
If we are moving back into a period of travel restrictions and lockdowns, that may be a drag on economic growth heading into 2022.
The latest setback is also a reminder of the importance of better vaccine distribution globally. The developed world has the lion’s share of vaccine supplies.
If big chunks of the developing world remain unvaccinated, the Covid-19 virus has more opportunities to mutate into more troubling strains.
Unfortunately, the pandemic seems far from over as the year draws to a close.
Photo Credit: Yuri Samoilev via Flickr Creative Commons
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