Arcturus Covid Variant: The WHO Declared XBB.1.16 a “Variant Under Monitoring” in Late March, Saying that It Is the Most Transmissible Variant Yet
The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified a new variant of the Covid-19 virus that is causing concern due to its potential impact on children. Known as Arcturus or XBB.1.16, this variant is fueling a new surge of cases in several countries, including the US, Singapore, and Australia. The WHO declared XBB.1.16 a “variant under monitoring” in late March, stating that it is the most transmissible variant yet, and experts are closely watching its behavior and impact on public health.
Dr. Vipin Vashishtha, a pediatrician in India and former head of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Immunization, has noted that the symptoms of XBB.1.16 include high fever, cough, and “itchy” conjunctivitis or pink eye. This symptom set is unusual and has rarely been reported in earlier waves of Covid-19. Dr. Vashishtha has also observed an increase in pediatric cases of Covid-19, particularly among infants, which is a concerning trend.
The symptoms of conjunctivitis associated with XBB.1.16 have been reported by researchers at Nebraska Medicine’s Truhlsen Eye Institute, who have identified the virus in the eye’s tear film. This could lead to conjunctivitis, which is characterized by tearing or watery eyes, redness, swelling, pain or irritation, itching, and discharge. While conjunctivitis has been reported as a Covid-19 symptom before, it has not been commonly observed in earlier waves of the virus.
Richard Reithinger, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the nonprofit research institute RTI International, has cautioned that it may be too early to determine if the symptom set of XBB.1.16 has truly shifted. He notes that conjunctivitis has been reported as a Covid-19 symptom, albeit infrequently. However, experts are keeping a close eye on this new variant and its impact on public health, particularly in children.
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The transmissibility of XBB.1.16 is a cause for concern, as it reportedly spreads about 1.17 to 1.27 times more efficiently than its relatives XBB.1 and XBB.1.5, according to a preprint study from scientists at the University of Tokyo. This increased transmissibility, coupled with its resistance to antibodies from other Covid-19 variants, has raised concerns about its potential to spread worldwide in the near future.
Raj Rajnarayanan, assistant dean of research and associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology, has described XBB.1.16 and its descendants as having “the oomph to outcompete” other Covid-19 variants. He predicts that XBB.1.16 and another new Omicron spawn, XBB.1.9, may gain steam in the coming weeks, “if nothing else emerges.”
The rise of XBB.1.16 and its impact on children, particularly with the emergence of conjunctivitis as a symptom, has raised concerns among health experts. Pediatric cases of Covid-19 are increasing, and doctors are warning parents of children with obesity, asthma, and other immunocompromised conditions to be vigilant and seek care if necessary. Adenovirus, which has similar symptoms to Covid-19 and can also cause conjunctivitis, is also on the rise among children, making it difficult to distinguish between the two without testing.
The CDC has not yet separated the XBB.1.16 variant as a distinct category in the U.S. As of Friday, XBB.1.16 cases were still reported under XBB, accounting for just under 2% of all U.S. cases. According to Rajnarayanan, nearly half of the identified XBB.1.16 sequences in the U.S. were detected through airport surveillance, as reported by GISAID. This international research database monitors changes in COVID and flu viruses.
Please note that this article was originally published on Fortune.com.