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This is an audio transcript of the FT News Briefing podcast episode: Nations race to contain the Omicron variant

Marc Filippino
Good morning from the Financial Times. Today is Monday, November 29th, and this is your FT News Briefing.

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The new coronavirus variant is rattling financial markets. UK regulators might reverse a $400m tech acquisition made last year. Plus, Iranian diplomats will sit down with Western counterparts to talk about its nuclear programme and sanctions.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr
Iran wants a guarantee from the US that it would never again leave the agreement.

Marc Filippino
Our correspondent will give us the view from Iran. I’m Marc Filippino, and here’s the news you need to start your day.

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This week, financial markets are likely to be focused on, once again, the pandemic. Several governments reimposed travel restrictions late last week after scientists in South Africa discovered the new coronavirus Omicron variant. Major global stock indices dropped on Friday, and nervous investors poured money into safe havens like gold. Now, it’s unclear how contagious the new variant is. FT pharmaceuticals reporter Donato Paolo Mancini has been speaking to the World Health Organisation and other public health experts who say Omicron appears to be more transmissible than the Delta variant.

Donato Paolo Mancini
And it has some mutations, some characteristics that suggest it could evade natural immunity and vaccine afforded immunity. So that means the vaccines that we have right now are probably less efficacious against it. That doesn’t mean that that’s the case for sure, there are studies under way. But global health authorities are quite concerned about it because anything that is more easily transmissible than Delta, anything that is able to be pierce through vaccinations would put a severe dent in our plans to sort of re-emerge globally from the pandemic.

Marc Filippino
Donato, what do experts say about precautions like lockdowns and travel restrictions?

Donato Paolo Mancini
So travel restrictions, the problem with variants of concern and WHO took the unusual step of designating it a variant of concern rather than an intermediate variant of interest on Friday, is that once you detect them it’s probably too late and it’s already in the community and it’s spreading pretty wildly. I spoke to Maria Van Kerkhove, the lead at the WHO for the Covid-19 response, and she said that countries should be focusing their efforts on testing in a targeted way on surveilling the genomic sequences of the tests that are positive in a targeted way. And so, you know, instead of having these blanket measures, they should be probably focusing on making sure that they can find what is already in the country. In a way, and this is what Van Kerkhove told me, this “could be” a January 2020 moment in which we started to find out about coronavirus from its first outbreak in Wuhan, China. But the moment we started introducing travel restrictions, the virus had already moved and it was already too late. As you know, the waves in the US and Europe in April and May and March of 2020 tell us, unfortunately. This time around is different, we do have vaccines and we are going to get drugs soon. They are widely available that are easy to take that appear to still have some significant effect on this variant, but on vaccines, unfortunately, it’s still too early to say.

Marc Filippino
Donato Paolo Mancini is the FT’s pharmaceutical reporter.

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Our next story has to do with gifs, so sorry in advance to everyone who pronounces it gifs. We’re talking about gifs, those short animated looping images, because the company formerly known as Facebook, it’s now Meta, last year bought the leading gif platform called Giphy, for $400m. But in the coming days, UK regulators may try and reverse that deal because of concerns over competition, that’s according to FT’s sources. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority says the deal could allow Meta to block rivals from accessing gifs, and this would be a first for the CMA. It’s never tried to reverse a completed tech deal before. Meta has in the past accused the UK watchdog of engaging in extraterritorial over-reach. The CMA has until December 1st to make a final call.

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One of Iran’s top diplomats is set to meet with western counterparts this week to restart talks over Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran says the talks are aimed at lifting the sanctions that were imposed when former President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear deal. Those economic sanctions have hit Iranians hard.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr
People feel economic pressure on a daily basis.

Marc Filippino
That’s our correspondent in Tehran, Najmeh Bozorgmehr. She says there’s really high unemployment, and food inflation is running at around 60 per cent.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr
This means many people of the middle class are basically falling into the lower class categories in financial terms. They tell me they are eating less or they change neighbourhoods because they cannot pay the rents any more. Of course, all this doesn’t mean we see naked poverty in Iran. Social networks are very strong, but I can tell you that even family networks and social networks feel under too much pressure now that maybe they cannot cope with the rising demands of people for food and financial help.

Marc Filippino
But these economic pressures haven’t affected the way Iranian officials are approaching these nuclear negotiations.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr
Their comments are quite defiant. So what Iran wants from these talks is all sanctions to be lifted before the Islamic Republic rolls back its nuclear advances, because it says that what the US administration of Donald Trump did by pulling out of the deal at the time Iran was loyal to the terms of the agreement could happen again. Iran wants a guarantee from the US that it would never again leave the agreement. They don’t sound, at least in their speeches, desperate to reach an agreement. Mr Raisi said this week that Iran has had more income since his government has taken over. It has sold more oil and the country’s opening up without compromising with global powers. And of course, these comments, although it encourages hardline parts of the system, it disappoints the pro-reform part of the country and it fans the subdued mood that the talks probably won’t have any results, at least in the near future.

Marc Filippino
Najmeh Bozorgmehr is the FT’s Tehran correspondent.

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Before we go, another development in the scandal that continues to rock the financial world. Jeffrey Epstein’s former girlfriend goes on trial today. Authorities accuse Ghislaine Maxwell of overseeing a network that recruited dozens of underage girls for Epstein to abuse. Maxwell denies committing any crime. Epstein killed himself in a Manhattan prison cell two years ago. Many hope this trial will reveal new details of his relationships and business dealings.

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You can read more on all of these stories at FT.com. This has been your daily FT News Briefing. Make sure you check back tomorrow for the latest business news.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.

Correction: An earlier version of this episode overstated the importance of oil in Iran’s economy. We’ve removed that section for clarity. 

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