Stocks head for huge weekly drop as new Covid-19 strain spooks investors

Variant, first detected in South Africa, raises concerns about its ability to render vaccines ineffective against it

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Published: Fri 26 Nov 2021, 1:09 PM

Stocks fell and headed for their largest weekly drop in nearly two months on Friday, while safe haven assets such as bonds and the yen rallied as a new virus variant added to swirling concerns about future growth and higher US interest rates.

The variant, detected by scientists in South Africa, spooked investors with concerns about fresh outbreaks and the impact on the global economy after scientists said the new variant may be able to evade immune responses.

Indian shares tumbled as much as 2.5% on Friday, with the blue-chip Nifty 50 set for its worst week since late-January, as investors dumped risky assets after a new and possibly vaccine-resistant coronavirus variant was identified in South Africa.

The blue-chip NSE Nifty 50 index .NSEI trimmed some losses to trade 2.02% lower at 17,183.60 by 0602 GMT, while the benchmark S&P BSE Sensex .BSESN was down 2.02% at 57,614.16.

Both the indexes hit their lowest levels since September 2 on Friday, while on a weekly basis, they are down more than 3% each.

Some nations moved swiftly to impose travel curbs from the nation, while India issued an advisory to all states to rigorously test and screen international travellers from South Africa and other "at risk" countries.

The developments knocked over broader markets in Asia, which saw their sharpest drop in three months.


"There is a fear of this new variant spreading to other countries which might again derail the global economy," said Hemang Jani, equity strategist at Motilal Oswal Financial Services.

Autos, banks, metals, energy and realty stocks were the worst hit, with the sub-indexes down between 3% and 5%.

The Nifty Pharma Index .NIPHARM gained 2.50%. Cipla CIPL. NS rose as much as 6.4% to a more than 7-month high, while Pfizer PFIZ. NS climbed to 5.7%.

Looking ahead, India's economic growth data is in focus, with a Reuters poll projecting that the country's economic recovery had strengthened in the previous quarter after pandemic-related mobility restrictions had eased.

The strain has prompted Britain to hurriedly introduce travel restrictions on South Africa.

South Africa's rand fell 1% in early trade, as did US crude futures. S&P 500 futures fell 0.4%, while the risk-sensitive Australian and New Zealand dollars dropped to three-month lows.

"The trigger was news of this Covid variant…and the uncertainty as to what this means," said Ray Attrill, head of FX strategy at National Australia Bank in Sydney. "You shoot first and ask questions later when this sort of news erupts."

Japan's Nikkei was down 1.7% in early trade and Australian shares fell 0.6%.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was down 0.2% for a weekly fall of 1% and world stocks, while still near record highs, headed for a weekly fall of 0.7%, the largest since early October.

Moves in Treasuries were sharp at the open in Tokyo – following the Thanksgiving holiday – as yields quickly pulled back some of the week's gains. Benchmark 10-year yields fell 5 basis points to 1.5927%.

The yen jumped about 0.4% to 114.91 per dollar and gold rose 0.2% to $1,792 per ounce.

Little is known about the new variant. However scientists told reporters it has "very unusual constellation" of mutations, concerning because they could help it evade the body's immune response and make it more transmissible.

British authorities think it is the most significant variant to date and worry it could resist vaccines.

The moves come against a backdrop of concern about Covid-19 outbreaks driving restrictions on movement and activity in Europe and as markets aggressively price rate rises next year in the United States.

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