South African rand hit by new Covid fears, variant

South African Rand.

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The South African rand fell sharply against the dollar on Friday after a new variant with many mutations was discovered in the country.

The currency fell as low as 16.2391 against the greenback during trading hours in Asia on Friday, last trading about 1.6% weaker at $16.2215 per dollar.

The losses came as investors rushed to safe-haven currencies like the Japanese yen, which strengthened about 0.6% against the greenback to $114.69 per dollar. The US dollar index, which tracks the greenback against its competitors, stood at 96,712, compared with levels below 96.5 seen earlier this week.

A currency analyst told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” on Friday that the big move in the rand may be due in part to fewer trades being made during Asia hours.

“This fundamental news of the new variant in [South] Africa, coupled with the low liquidity in Asia, is certainly driving that price action,” said Adarsh ​​Sinha, co-head of Asia Rates and Foreign Exchange Strategy at Bank of America Securities.

World Health Organization officials said Thursday they are monitoring a new variant with numerous mutations in the spike protein — the part of the virus that binds to cells in the body. The health agency is planning a special meeting Friday to discuss what it could mean for vaccines and treatments.

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

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

Hours after the announcement, the UK announced it would temporarily suspend flights from six African countries.

— Hannah Miao of CNBC contributed to this report.

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