Bitcoin, the largest digital currency, fell as much as 9.2% to $53,551, its lowest since Oct. 10. The second largest cryptocurrency ether fell over 13% to its lowest in a month as investors ditched cryptocurrencies.
Bitcoin, whose 13-year life has been peppered by bouts of extreme volatility, was on track for its biggest one-day drop since Sept. 20. It has slumped by more than a fifth since hitting a record high of almost $70,000 earlier this month.
Scientists said the coronavirus variant, detected in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, has an unusual combination of mutations and may be able to evade immune responses or make it more transmissible.
"The spread of (the variant), especially to other countries, could wither investor appetite further," said Yuya Hasegawa at Tokyo-based exchange Bitbank. "BTC's upside will likely be limited and the market should brace for further loss."
Bitcoin hit an all-time high of $69,000 earlier this month as more large investors embraced cryptocurrencies, with many drawn to its purported inflation-resistant qualities.
Others have piled into the digital token on the promise of quick gains, a draw that has been heightened by record low or negative interest rates. Yet bitcoin's volatility has lingered, drawing questions over its suitability as a stable store of value.
Ether was last at $3,924. It is down almost 20% from its record high hit on Nov. 10.
(Reporting by Tom Wilson; editing by Carolyn Cohn, Kim Coghill, William Maclean)
By Tom Wilson