LONDON - World stock markets fell Monday as investors worried that a possible deadly outbreak of swine flu, which has already killed more than 100 people in Mexico alone, could go global and derail any global economic recovery.
Airlines took the brunt of the selling amid concerns passengers could hold back from flying for fear of catching the virus, which has already reportedly spread as far as New Zealand.
"News over the weekend of a deadly flu outbreak is rocking financial markets," said Matt Buckland, a dealer at CMC Markets.
By mid-morning London time, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares was down 48.53 points, or 1.2 per cent, at 4,107.46, while Germany's DAX fell 81.11 points, or 1.7 per cent, to 4,593.21. The CAC-40 in France was 44.15 points, or 1.4 per cent, lower at 3,058.70.
Earlier, most of Asia's markets were hit by the pandemic fears, with Hong Kong - one of the main focal points of the SARS virus concerns just six years ago - closing down 418.43 points, or 2.7 per cent, to 14,840.42. Japan's Nikkei 225 stock average managed a gain of 18.35, or 0.2 per cent, to close at 8,726.34 in back-and-forth trade.
In Europe, Deutsche Lufthansa AG fell 10 per cent, while British Airways PLC was down more than 7 per cent. Earlier, Australia's Qantas Airways fell 4 per cent while Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways slid 8 per cent.
Travel and hotel companies were also heavily sold off, with British cruise line firm Carnival PLC down more than 7 per cent and French hotel group Accor SA down more than 6 per cent.
While airlines tanked, pharmaceutical companies enjoyed a modest rally in falling markets amid expectations that demand for anti-viral drugs would rise. Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding AG - the maker of Tamiflu - was up 4 per cent, while GlaxoSmithkline PLC, which manufactures the Relenza drug, rose 3 per cent.
Worries about the epidemic's spread will likely remain at the forefront of investors' mind over the coming days and overshadowed any hopes generated over the weekend by the announcement from the Group of Seven finance ministers that the worst of the world recession may be over and that recovery may emerge by the end of the year.
"It's really going to be a case of watching how this Mexican flu issue develops before deciding if these already bruised markets have another big fall coming up," said CMC's Buckland.
Hopes that a recovery of sorts is on its way has helped world stock markets rally off multiyear lows in early March. Despite some range trading over the last couple of weeks, stocks began to rally strongly again at the end of last week, with the Dow Jones industrial average, for example, advancing 1.5 per cent to 8,076.29 on Friday.
Selling is expected to be the name of the game when Wall Street opens, with Dow futures down 124 points, or 1.5 per cent, at 7,932 and the broader Standard & Poor's 500 futures 15 points, or 1.7 per cent, lower at 851.50.
"At the moment we are expecting the Dow to open down around 90 points lower from Friday's close - again on swine flu concerns," said David Jones, chief market strategist at IG Index.
Elsewhere in Asia, Australia's stock measure gained 0.5 per cent while Shanghai's fell 1.8 per cent. Markets in Singapore, Taiwan and India retreated.
Oil prices dropped sharply as investors mulled comments from OPEC suggesting the price was too low for companies to justify new investments in crude production. Benchmark crude for June delivery fell $2.78 to $48.77. The contract jumped $1.93 to settle at $51.55 last week.
In currencies, the dollar weakened to 96.55 yen from 97.17 yen. The euro traded lower at $1.3141 from $1.3161.
AP Business Writer Jeremiah Marquez in Hong Kong contributed to this report.