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WHO calls special meeting to discuss new Covid variant from South Africa with ‘large number of mutations’



RT: Maria Van Kerkhove, Head a.i. Emerging Diseases and Zoonosis at the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks during a news conference on the situation of the coronavirus at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, January 29, 2020.

Denis Balibouse | Reuters

The World Health Organization is monitoring a new variant with numerous mutations to the spike protein, scheduling a special meeting Friday to discuss what it may mean for vaccines and treatments, officials said Thursday.

The variant, called B.1.1.529, has been detected in South Africa in small numbers, according to the WHO.

“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said in a Q&A that was livestreamed on the organization’s social media channels.

The monitoring of the new variant comes as Covid cases surge around the world heading into the holiday season, with the WHO reporting hot spots in all regions and particularly in Europe.

South African scientists have detected more than 30 mutations to the spike protein, the part of the virus that binds to cells in the body, South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira said in a media briefing hosted by the South Africa Department of Health on Thursday.

The B.1.1.529 variant contains multiple mutations associated with increased antibody resistance, which may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, along with mutations that generally make it more contagious, according to slides he presented at the briefing. Other mutations in the new variant haven’t been seen until now, so scientists don’t yet know whether they are significant or will change how the virus behaves, according to the presentation.

The variant has spread rapidly through the Gauteng province, which contains the country’s largest city of Johannesburg. 

“Especially when the spike happens in Gauteng, everybody travels in and out of Gauteng from all corners of South Africa. So it’s a given that in the next few days, the beginning of rising positivity rate and numbers is going to be happening. It’s a matter of days and weeks before we see that,” South Africa Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said during the briefing.

The variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong, Phaahla said. 

“Right now, researchers are getting together to understand where these mutations are in the spike protein and the furin cleavage site, and what that potentially may mean for our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines,” Van Kerkhove said. She said there are fewer than 100 full genome sequences of the new mutation.

The virus evolution working group will decide if B.1.1.529 will become a variant of interest or a variant of concern, after which the WHO would assign the variant a Greek name, Van Kerkhove said.

“It’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses here, especially with relation to South Africa,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program, said.

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The case for loose monetary policy ‘just isn’t there anymore’



Jim O’Neill, former chief economist Goldman Sachs Group, in Italy in 2019.

Alessia Pierdomenico | Bloomberg via Getty Images

As the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England adopt increasingly hawkish tones in the face of persistent high inflation, the days of ultra-loose policy should be behind us, according to Jim O’Neill, senior advisor at Chatham House.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell last week retired the term “transitory” to describe inflation, a move analysts, and O’Neill, described as a “mea culpa” or admission that the central bank had been wrong in its previous assessment.

The Bank of England surprised markets early in November by holding interest rates at a record low instead of beginning its hiking cycle.

Both the U.S. and the U.K. have seen inflation running at multi-decade highs in recent months as a combination of soaring energy costs and supply constraints drove up consumer prices.

However, the emergence of the omicron Covid variant has resurfaced some uncertainty for markets over when the long-awaited tightening cycles will begin in earnest.

Speaking to CNBC’s “Street Signs Europe” on Monday, O’Neill, a veteran economist and former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, said the Fed’s change of language was overdue.

“If you put aside the risk of uncertainty about the [omicron] variant, when you end this year where we have ended with the scale of recovery we have had — notwithstanding what is probably a statistical fluke with the payroll survey Friday — the huge bounceback in growth, why do we need the same scale of emergency monetary policy that we had 18 months ago all over the western world?” O’Neill said.

The U.S. economy added just 210,000 jobs in November, well below the 573,000 expected in a Dow Jones survey of economists, though the unemployment rate fell sharply from 4.6% to 4.2%. However, this is not expected to delay the Fed’s exit from easy policy. U.S. consumer prices soared 6.2% annually in October, the country’s biggest inflation print in more than three decades.

O’Neill argued that keeping policy at historically accommodative levels risked central banks having fewer options if additional stimulus is needed due to another economic shock in the near future. He suggested policymakers would be better off tightening now to contain inflation while growth is running hot, giving themselves room to unwind in case of emergency.

“I think the Fed is right to make this move and I actually think they should have done it a bit earlier. I hope this twist in the omicron [variant] doesn’t delay the Bank of England from raising rates,” he added.

Markets had largely priced in a December rate hike from the next Monetary Policy Committee meeting, but expectations have waned somewhat since the emergence of the omicron variant.

O’Neill suggested that the anticipated windfall in unemployment when the U.K.’s furlough scheme ended had not materialized, and that said “nobody would have dreamt that we’d be in this position a year ago.”

Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey acknowledged after the November policy meeting that warning signs were there on inflation, which has begun to run consistently above 3%, significantly exceeding the Bank’s target. However, Bailey suggested that more visibility of post-furlough jobs data would be needed for the bank to hike interest rates.

“I don’t think it is just the U.K., but in the U.K., the evidence of inflation surprising on the upside and growth coming through generally better than anybody would have dreamt about, particularly policymakers, a year ago — the case for having such an accommodative monetary policy just isn’t, in my opinion, there anymore,” O’Neill said.

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NYSE shakes up senior management with Lynn Martin replacing Stacey Cunningham as president



A trader during the Sweetgreen initial public offering (IPO) in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.

Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The New York Stock Exchange said Monday it is shaking up the company’s leadership team with announcements of new president and chair.

Lynn Martin, currently the president of Intercontinental Exchange‘s fixed income and data services business, has been appointed the next president of the NYSE, succeeding Stacey Cunningham.

Sharon Bowen, an ICE and NYSE Board Member, will become the next chair of the NYSE. Bowen was a former commissioner of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).

Cunningham, the 67th president and the second ever female president of the exchange, will join the board of directors of the NYSE. Cunningham first came to the NYSE about nine years ago when ICE announced its $8.2 billion acquisition of NYSE Euronext.

“Stacey led the NYSE through an extraordinary era that saw its technology prove resilient and its trading systems thrive in even the most turbulent times,” Jeff Sprecher, founder, chairman and CEO of Intercontinental Exchange, said in a statement. “She begins a new chapter with the Exchange better and stronger for her tireless efforts, and with our deepest thanks.”

The NYSE is operated by the electronic trading group Intercontinental Exchange, which acquired it in 2012.

Intercontinental Exchange reported stronger-than-expected earnings and revenue for the third quarter. The stock is up about 13% this year, lagging the broader market, however.

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A major shift is underway at the Federal Reserve that could see a speedier end to its easy policies



A major shift is underway at the Federal Reserve to begin to remove the central bank’s massive pandemic easing policies, and could see it hike rates sooner than is priced in by markets.

Comments by Fed officials suggest the central bank is likely to decide to double the pace of its taper to $30 billion a month at its December meeting next week. Initial discussions could also begin as soon as the December meeting about when to raise interest rates and by how much next year with Fed officials set to submit a fresh round of economic forecasts and projections for the fed funds rate.

There is no consensus yet on when to begin hikes, but it’s clear that the faster taper is designed to give the Fed flexibility to raise rates as soon as the spring. The markets do not appear to expect the first rate hike until the summer.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said Friday he wants asset purchases to end in the first quarter so the Fed can position itself “soon” and make every meeting “live” for a possible rate hike. Several other officials have now spoken openly about the chance for multiple rate hikes next year and the potential need to raise rates to combat inflation.

Jerome Powell, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, speaks during a House Financial Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.

Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Fed Chair Jerome Powell in testimony last week supported the idea of a faster taper and made a dramatic shift when he said the big concern with another wave of the coronavirus or new variant was inflation, because it might keep people out of work and worsen supply constraints. It was a big change for Powell and the Fed since previous virus waves have mostly raised worries about weak demand, not tight supply. Until the taper was announced in November, Fed officials were mostly silent about the rate outlook.

Economic data in November played a big role in the Fed’s shift. The consumer price index showed higher and more widespread inflation. That added to concern of how higher housing prices might drive up the CPI in coming months.

The jobs report in November showed strong payroll growth, but few workers coming off the sidelines and back into the job market. The progress in December, with labor force growth of about 600,000, appeared to do little to change the outlook for a tight job market.

Meanwhile, after a weak third quarter, all appearances are that the economy is accelerating again, raising the question for the Fed about whether the economy needs continued Fed asset purchases and zero rate hikes all the way thru next summer.

The central bank chief did nothing in his testimony to dissuade the market that the current pricing in of two rate hike rates next year was wrong.

Powell and the Fed have shown they will provide at least several months lead time to markets for a change in policy. So if the Fed wants maximum flexibility to hike, discussions about how far and how fast would need to begin soon, even as soon as the December meeting.

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