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TOKYO: Tokyo stocks ended sharply lower on Friday, falling over three percent at one point, as news of a new Covid-19 variant spooked investors and strengthened the safe haven yen.

The benchmark Nikkei 225 index managed to trim losses in late trade and ended down 2.53 percent or 747.66 points to 28,751.62.

The broader Topix index slipped 2.01 percent or 40.71 points to 1,984.98.

"It appears to be worries over the variant of the coronavirus strain first discovered in South Africa that is weighing on the market," said Ryuta Otsuka, senior strategist at Toyo Securities.

"As trading volume is thin, the declines are significant, with hedge funds and others selling," he told AFP.

"There doesn't seem to be enough energy to buck the downward trend."

Investors feared that the latest plunge might trigger a global market rout that may continue next week, Okasan Online Securities said in a note. "Investors strongly fear that possible falls of US shares tonight might lead to sales of Tokyo shares next week," the brokerage said.

The sell-off came after scientists in South Africa announced they had detected a new Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations.

Britain swiftly announced restrictions on travel from the country and five other southern African nations, with scientists warning the new variant could be more infectious than Delta and more resistant to current vaccines.

The news sent investors flocking to the safe haven yen, strengthening the currency after weeks of declines against the dollar, and weighing on the market.

The dollar fetched 114.51 yen in Asian trade, against 115.34 yen in London late Thursday.

In Tokyo, Mizuho Financial Group fell 1.20 percent to 1,445.5 yen after reports said its CEO will step down later in the day following a series of system glitches over which the Financial Services Agency will reportedly issue an administrative business improvement order.

Nissan shed 1.63 percent to 628.9 yen following a report that said it will boost investment in electric vehicles to achieve a target of EVs and hybrids making up 50 percent of its global sales by fiscal 2030.

Toyota sank 1.78 percent to 2,074.5 yen.

NTT was down 2.14 percent at 3,161 yen after a report said the ministry of internal affairs and communications will issue an administrative directive over its mobile unit's recent technical glitch.

Sony lost 1.93 percent to 13,985 yen, investment giant SoftBank Group was off 5.19 percent at 6,336 yen and Uniqlo casual wear operator Fast Retailing dived 3.29 percent to 71,630 yen.

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