The biggest threat to the global economy in a century is mutating—literally.
More-virulent and potentially deadlier variants of Covid-19 first identified in Britain, South Africa and Brazil are spreading, just as the rollout of vaccines had raised hopes for a broad-based economic recovery.
The new variants pose two threats. First, to counteract the higher risk of infection, restrictions on activity may be tightened, pushing some economies back into recession. Britain, where one fast-spreading variant is now widespread, re-entered a full lockdown on Jan. 5. Its economy, which shrank 10% last year, is likely contracting now. The International Monetary Fund said Tuesday it would grow 4.5% this year, down from its October forecast of 5.9%.
The second threat is of a possible new variant that is resistant to the immunity conferred by existing vaccines and past infections, which could trigger a new cycle of restrictions and require a new round of vaccinations.
If such a variant emerges, manufacturers think vaccines can be updated relatively quickly. Nonetheless, James Stock, an economist at Harvard University who has studied the virus and the economy, warned of a “scenario of this thing sticking around for a much longer time frame.’’