Arcturus COVID variant: Should I be worried?

The Omicron subvariant of COVID-19, XBB.1.16, has been nicknamed Arcturus COVID. Despite this variant showing increased infectivity, the prevalence of cases in the UK remains low, and there is little cause for alarm. Just 2.3% of all new COVID cases in April this year were attributed to this new variant.

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Arcturus COVID variant: Should I be worried?
  • Arcturus is the nickname given to the latest COVID-19 strain XB.1.16.
  • Although Arcturus is more infectious than previous COVID strains, it is not more severe.
  • An increase in Arcturus infections in India caused mask mandates to be reinstated in April.
  • There have been more than eight different SARS-CoV-2 variants recognised by the UK Health Security Agency.

Arcturus COVID-19 variant: FAQs

  • What are the symptoms of the latest COVID variant, Arcturus?

    Unlike earlier strains of COVID-19, XB.1.16 or Arcturus often causes conjunctivitis, along with the more common COVID symptoms of itching throat, cough, runny nose, fatigue, headaches and body aches. As with other infectious diseases, underlying health conditions can increase the severity of COVID-19 and the new variant Arcturus.

  • What are the 8 variants of COVID?

    The variants of SARS-CoV-2 that reached the UK included the Alpha variant, Beta (also known as the South African variant), Delta (also known as the Indian variant), Omicron BA.1 and Omicron BA.2. XF, XE, and XD recombinant variants were mixtures of Omicron BA.1, BA.2 and Delta while Kraken and the latest variant, Arcturus are mutations of Omicron.

  • What are the risks of Arcturus COVID variant?

    According to the WHO, the risks of XB.1.16 are low in terms of triggering another pandemic. Equally, the risk of hospitalisation or death for individuals is also low. Those with underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems face the biggest risk from this variant. It is too early to tell if Arcturus can cause long COVID.

  • What is the treatment for the latest COVID variant called?

    Currently, no vaccines specifically target the XB.1.16 variant of coronavirus, or XBB.1 and XBB 1.5. However, it is likely that new formulations of the COVID-19 vaccine will take into account these and future mutations of the virus, aiming to prevent infection from them as well as earlier strains.

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The short answer is “No”. Worrying about anything is not good for your health, and the Arcturus COVID variant isn’t any different. Despite being 1.2 times more infectious than the previous coronavirus variants, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) found it wasn’t any more severe. What’s more, there have been only a few hospitalisations and deaths caused by this new coronavirus mutation.

Around 20% of new COVID-19 infections are attributed to this variant. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) COVID technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, said, “It’s been in circulation for a few months. We haven't seen a change in severity in individuals or in populations.”

Health officials at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control gave this COVID-19 variant a level three categorisation of “variant under monitoring” in April, and it remains at this level today. There are two higher classifications for SARS-CoV-2 virus mutations, “variants of interest” and “variants of concern”.

Arcturus COVID: What you should know

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) global risk assessment of XBB.1.16 is lower than previous strains, including the earlier variant XBB.1.5, dubbed the Kraken. Arcturus is no more severe than other variants of COVID; however, symptoms are slightly different. 

XBB.1.16 and XBB.1.5 are subvariants of omicron mutated from the BA.2 COVID strain. Their increased infectiousness is due to a mutation of the spike protein. Although all of these new COVID-19 variants are more infectious than earlier variants, they’ve also been found to be less severe. 

Symptoms of these newer coronavirus strains are said to be mild, and fewer hospitalisations and deaths have been caused by them. Professor Francois Balloux of University College London Biosciences explained this was likely due to the higher rates of infections from Kraken and the improving weather in the UK.

“In places like the UK, it is not expected to have much of an impact on case numbers, and even less so on hospitalisations and deaths. XBB.1.16 is still at low frequency here in the UK, but it may become the next dominant variant in the future,” he said earlier in the year.

Is there a vaccine for the new COVID variant?

At present, no COVID vaccine or booster has been made specifically for the newly mutated virus. Early studies have found that vaccine-induced antibody responses to the new variants are poorer than other variants. Those with immunity caused by previous COVID infections or COVID vaccines and subsequent infections should have stronger protections against the Arcturus variant.

It’s likely future formulations of COVID-19 vaccines will take into account this and other variants of SARS-CoV-2. You can learn more about changes to COVID vaccines in our earlier article about boosters protecting against future COVID variants.

The elderly and people with underlying health conditions are at the most risk. Public health authorities have advised this vulnerable group to be cautious, wear face masks and practise safe distancing when outside. Keeping up to date with COVID-19 boosters has also been advised.

Arcturus symptoms

Most people who contract the latest COVID variant experience mild symptoms. There’s unlikely to be any need for hospitalisation. Unlike previous variants, the latest strain of COVID-19 causes itchy conjunctivitis (pink eye) along with a high fever. A scratchy throat, coughs and a runny nose are also common. All of these symptoms are more often present in children.

Other common symptoms of this strain of COVID include:

  • Fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Congestion

Due to the time of year that this strain of COVID was identified, concerns were aired on social media that seasonal hayfever could easily be misdiagnosed as the latest strain of COVID.

The NHS no longer require people to test if they have COVID-19 symptoms or symptoms of any of its variants. The current advice is to stay at home and avoid contact with other people. The NHS advice for people who are eligible for COVID-19 treatment is to take a lateral flow test.

How many countries have the new COVID variant?

Latest reports from the WHO state the newest COVID variant has been confirmed in 33 different countries. India accounts for around 61% of global Arcturus infections, with almost 10,000 cases being confirmed daily through April 2023. This spike in COVID-19 cases saw mask mandates reinstated throughout the country for a short period.

In the same month, WHO downgraded their categorisation of XBB.1.16 to a “variant of interest” rather than a “variant of concern”. This means they will continue to closely monitor the virus’ progression along with future mutations, but there is no imminent danger of another lockdown or pandemic.

In the UK, Arcturus was first identified in England’s east. By mid-April, the mutated virus had spread to all other regions, including Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. At least one confirmed infection was reported in each region. Five people in the UK have died with Arcturus. Public health authorities in the UK maintained their “variant of interest” classification for this strain.

Evidence shows Arcturus may be out-competing other strains of the COVID-19 virus and may take over as the dominant strain in most countries. Experts believe it is unlikely to cause a big wave of cases or trigger a new pandemic.

Image Credit: Andrea Piacquadio at Pexels

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