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Companies cautious on impact of Omicron coronavirus variant

(Adds Biden met with executives, Walmart CEO comment)

By Ben Klayman

Nov 29 (Reuters) – Pandemic-weary corporations struggled to assess the impact of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus on Monday, with industries from airlines to autos awaiting more details to help determine how it might affect their operations and profits.

The World Health Organization warned on Monday the Omicron variant carries a very high global risk of infection surges. Spooked investors wiped roughly $2 trillion off global stocks on Friday, but markets were calmer on Monday.

Countries have swiftly imposed bans on travel from southern Africa, where the variant was first uncovered. Japan and Israel went even further, announcing bans on all foreign visitors.

Some airlines said they were not heavily changing schedules, but industry sources said big carriers moved swiftly to protect their hubs by curbing passenger travel from southern Africa, fearing a spread of Omicron could trigger restrictions from other destinations.

Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary saw no reason to cancel flights although he was worried about some countries potentially shutting air travel. Lufthansa, Germany’s flagship airline, said its flights were still well booked.

U.S. President Joe Biden met with chief executives of major retailers and other companies on Monday to discuss how to move goods to shelves as the U.S. holiday shopping season begins in the shadow of Omicron.

Before the meeting, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon cited improvement in the supply chain, noting the retailer had seen a 26% increase in shipping containers going through U.S. ports over the past four weeks.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said on Monday it was too soon to tell if Omicron will have any impact on global supply chains.

The prospect of a fast-spreading variant has raised fears of a return of the sort of restrictions that shut down a swathe of industries in 2020.

In the United States, auto plants were closed for two months last year. Even after automakers restarted operations, they have curtailed production schedules due to semiconductor chip shortages and other supply-chain constraints. Automakers said it was too soon to predict the impact of Omicron.

“This is new,” Nissan Motor Co’s U.S. spokeswoman Lloryn love-Carter said. “We’re monitoring of course, but we still have a lot of pretty strict COVID protocols in place.”

General Motors Co, the largest U.S. automaker, said it was watching closely and its COVID-19 safety protocols remain in place at its plants.

“We continue to strongly encourage our employees to get vaccinated given the broad availability of safe and highly efficacious vaccines,” GM spokeswoman Maria Raynal said in an email. “We will continue to review and adjust our protocols as new information regarding this variant becomes available.”

Toyota Motor Corp said its U.S. management team will meet on Tuesday to discuss the Omicron variant and whether the Japanese automaker needs to take additional steps.

“Right now we’re in the ‘gathering info’ mode,” Toyota’s U.S. spokesman Scott Vazin said. “Since most of our employees are based in plants, we’ve never stopped COVID protocols such as social distancing, health screenings, masking up.”

Ford Motor Co, Stellantis and Volkswagen also said they continue to follow strict safety protocols for employees at all U.S. facilities. (Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit, additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris and Alex Alper in Washington; Editing by Peter Graff, Bill Berkrot and Sandra Maler)


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