New omicron COVID-19 variant affects air travel

The United States announced Friday it will restrict flights from South Africa and seven other African countries in response to a new coronavirus variant, B.1.1.529, that scientists have discovered spreading rapidly throughout the population of South Africa and its neighbors.

U.S. citizens and legal residents will be allowed to return home as long as they show a negative COVID-19 test.

The United Kingdom, Austria, France, Italy, and other European countries also imposed flight bans from South Africa and other African countries, and Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium have reported their own positive cases of the new strain.

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U.S. stocks fell Friday following news of European flight restrictions. The Dow Jones dropped 900 points, and the S&P 500 fell 1.5 percent. Investors started moving money into companies that profited from previous COVID-19 waves, such as Zoom and Peloton.

What is the variant? A WHO technical advisory group that met on Friday declared the variant coronavirus strain to be “of concern” based on early evidence that it poses a higher reinfection risk than delta. The WHO gave it the Greek name omicron.

Scientists said the strain has up to 30 mutations in its spike protein, affecting transmissibility and possibly vaccine effectiveness. BioNTech, a partner with Pfizer in vaccine development, has already started to test the variant.

Omicron has spread rapidly among young people in South Africa. The daily average of new coronavirus cases in the country reached 2,465 as of Thursday, up from 200 last week, presumably due to the new strain.

News of the variant came as Merck announced its COVID-19 treatment drug is less effective than it previously believed. 

This story originally appeared in WORLD. © 2021, reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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