Oil steadied on Thursday after early declines fuelled by delays to vaccine rollouts and fresh travel curbs to prevent new coronavirus outbreaks.
Brent crude futures were up 8 cents, or 0.1%, at $55.89 a barrel by 1331 GMT, having hit a session low of $55.31.
U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were down 8 cents, or 0.2%, at $52.77 after dropping as low as $52.22.
Oil prices were supported by data on Wednesday showing a huge 10 million barrel decline in U.S. crude inventories last week, which analysts said was because of a pick-up in U.S. crude exports and a drop in imports.
But attention is returning to demand as contagious variants drive a rise in coronavirus infections and a slower rollout of vaccines in Europe and travel curbs in China are expected to limit fuel consumption.
“Any sort of demand-related optimism remains on pause amid the continued rise of new COVID-19 cases across key demand centres and restricted mobility and public activity,” consultants JBC Energy said.
Adding to the bearishness over demand, China, the world’s second-largest oil consumer, faces a surge in coronavirus cases and is seeking to limit travel as it heads into what is normally the busiest travel season of the year, the Lunar New Year holiday.
The Chinese Ministry of Transport has forecast the number of trips that will be taken will rise 15% from last year, when the virus was raging, but is still likely to be down 40% from 2019.
A strengthening dollar also weighed on prices. Buyers using other currencies must pay more for dollar-denominated oil when the greenback rises.
Data out later on Thursday is expected to show the economy of the United States, the world’s biggest oil user, contracted in 2020 at its sharpest pace since 1946 because of the pandemic.