(Adds IMF managing director, paragraph 21)
* U.S., Canada, UK and EU curb travel from southern Africa
* WHO designates new variant 'of concern'
* Stocks tumble, oil plunges by $10 a barrel
* Variant has protein dramatically different from original
* Epidemiologist warns travel curbs may be too late
WASHINGTON/GENEVA, Nov 26 (Reuters) - The discovery of a new
coronavirus variant named Omicron triggered global alarm on
Friday as countries rushed to suspend travel from southern
Africa and stock markets on both sides of the Atlantic suffered
their biggest falls in more than a year.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said Omicron https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/what-we-know-about-covid-19-variant-detected-south-africa-2021-11-26
may spread more quickly than other forms, and preliminary
evidence suggested there is an increased risk of reinfection.
Epidemiologists warned travel curbs may be too late to stop
Omicron from circulating globally. The new mutations were first
discovered in South Africa and have since been detected in
Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.
The United States https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-impose-travel-curbs-eight-southern-african-countries-over-new-covid-19-2021-11-26
will restrict travel from South Africa and neighbouring
countries effective Monday, a senior Biden administration
Going further, Canada https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/canada-closing-borders-citizens-seven-southern-african-nations-over-covid-19-2021-11-26
said it was closing its borders to those countries, following
bans on flights announced by Britain https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/britain-says-new-covid-19-variant-is-most-significant-yet-found-2021-11-26,
the European Union https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/eu-moves-halt-air-travel-places-with-new-covid-variant-2021-11-26
But it could take weeks for scientists to fully understand
the variant's mutations and whether existing vaccines and
treatments are effective against it. Omicron is the fifth
variant of concern https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/who-meeting-friday-designate-new-variant-b11529-2021-11-26
designated by the WHO.
The variant has a spike protein that is dramatically
different than the one in the original coronavirus that vaccines
are based on, the UK Health Security Agency said, raising fears
about how current vaccines will fare.
Scientists issued similar warnings.
"This new variant of the COVID-19 virus is very worrying.
It is the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen
to date," said Lawrence Young, a virologist at Britain's
University of Warwick.
"Some of the mutations that are similar to changes we've
seen in other variants of concern are associated with enhanced
transmissibility and with partial resistance to immunity induced
by vaccination or natural infection."
Those worries pummelled financial markets, especially stocks
of airlines and others in the travel sector, and oil, which
tumbled by about $10 a barrel.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 2.5%,
its worst day since late October 2020, and European stocks
had their worst day in 17 months.
Cruise operators Carnival Corp, Royal Caribbean
Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line plunged more
than 10% each, while shares in United Airlines, Delta
Air Lines and American Airlines slumped almost
'MOST SIGNIFICANT VARIANT'
Several other countries including India, Japan, Israel,
Turkey, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates also toughened
In Geneva the WHO - whose experts on Friday discussed the
risks presented by the variant, called B.1.1.529 - had earlier
warned against travel curbs for now.
"It's really important that there are no knee-jerk
responses," said the WHO's emergencies director Mike Ryan,
praising South Africa's public health institutions for picking
up the new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Richard Lessells, a South Africa-based infectious disease
expert, also expressed frustration at travel bans, saying the
focus should be on getting more people vaccinated in places that
have struggled to access sufficient shots.
"This is why we talked about the risk of vaccine apartheid.
This virus can evolve in the absence of adequate levels of
vaccination," he told Reuters.
Less than 7% of people in low-income countries https://www.reuters.com/markets/asia/activists-urge-biden-push-intellectual-property-waiver-covid-19-vaccines-2021-11-22
have received their first COVID-19 shot, according to medical
and human rights groups. Meanwhile, many developed nations are
giving third-dose boosters.
"Failure to help vaccinate sub-Saharan Africa - still barely
4% of the population - left us all exposed to risk of a new,
more virulent #COVID variant," IMF Managing Director Kristalina
Georgieva wrote on Twitter. "News of #Omricon is an urgent
reminder of why we need to do even more to vaccinate the world."
TOO LATE FOR TRAVEL CURBS?
The coronavirus has swept the world in the two years since
it was first identified in central China, infecting 260 million
people and killing 5.4 million https://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi.
One epidemiologist in Hong Kong said it may be too late to
tighten travel curbs against the latest variant.
"Most likely this virus is already in other places. And so
if we shut the door now, it's going to be probably too late,"
said Ben Cowling of the University of Hong Kong.
Discovery of the new variant comes as Europe and the United
States enter winter, with more people gathering indoors in the
run-up to Christmas, providing a breeding ground for infection.
Friday also marked the start of the holiday shopping period
in the United States, but stores were less crowded than in
Realtor Kelsey Hupp, 36, was at the Macy's department store
in downtown Chicago on Black Friday.
"Chicago is pretty safe and masked and vaccinated. I got my
booster so I'm not too concerned about it," she said.
Eikon users can click https://apac1.apps.cp.thomsonreuters.com/cms/?navid=1063154666
for a COVID case tracker.
(Reporting by bureaux across the world; Writing by Nick Macfie,
Alex Richardson and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by John Stonestreet,
Toby Chopra, Cynthia Osterman and Daniel Wallis)