WHO monitoring new Covid-19 subvariant ‘Arcturus’, which is driving surge of cases in India

Some states in India have mandated mask wearing after Covid-19 cases surged in the country recently. - Reuters

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/Asia News Network):The World Health Organization (WHO) is monitoring the new Covid-19 “Arcturus” subvariant, which is fuelling a recent surge of cases in India.

The Omicron subvariant XBB.1.16 strain, first detected in late January, is a recombinant of two descendants of another Omicron variant BA.2.

The WHO said that the subvariant has one additional “mutational mutation” in the spike protein. Laboratory studies show Arcturus has increased infectivity, as well as potential increased pathogenicity.

The symptoms of XBB.1.16 are reportedly the same as previous variants, which include fever, shortness of breath and a cough. However, many of those infected are also reporting conjunctivitis and sticky eyes.

A study by the University of Tokyo showed that Arcturus is nearly 1.2 times as transmissible as XBB.15, also known as Kraken, the most infectious subvariant until now.

But the subvariant is not thought to be any more severe than XBB.1.5, reported British news outlet The i Paper.

The subvariant’s name, “XBB.1.16” was made popular by Vipin M Vashishtha, former convenor of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics.

He used it as a hashtag in a tweet on March 17, warning about new Covid-19 cases, according to New Delhi Television (NDTV).

The subvariant, is behind a 13-fold surge in cases in India in March, which has led the country to conduct mock drills to check whether hospitals are prepared to deal with rising case counts.

On Wednesday, there were 40,215 active Covid-19 cases - up by 3,122 in just one day, statistics from India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare show.

Two Indian states have also reintroduced mask wearing in public places as Covid-19 cases in India reached highest weekly number in seven months, reported The Telegraph on Wednesday.

In the northern state of Haryana, face masks are mandatory in public places and schools. Masks are also compulsory for pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic diseases in the southern state of Kerala, a popular tourist destination.

It is the first time mask mandates are since March 2022, and they have sparked concern in the country.

Doctors in India are urging citizens to remain calm. Although the new subvariant appears to more contagious, doctors say that there has not been an uptick in fatalities yet.

Some paediatric cases have been noted amongst infants, reported The Telegraph.

“We need to remain alert, but there is no need to worry,” said Dr Mansukh Mandaviya, India’s Health Minister in the report.

“Currently, the subvariant of omicron, which is circulating in the country, hasn’t led to an increase in the rate of hospitalisation.”

The subvariant, which is reportedly one of more than 600 Omicron subvariants, was first detected in January. It has been detected in over 20 countries including Singapore, the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.

In the last week of March in Singapore, 28,410 Covid-19 cases were recorded. This is almost double the previous week’s figure of 14,467.

The healthy ministry told CNA that the current Covid-19 infection wave is driven by a mix of XBB subvariants including XBB.1.5, XBB.1.9 and XBB.1.16.

However, it added that there is currently no evidence of increased severity in the cases.

At a press conference on March 29, WHO’s Covid-19 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, but that’s why we have these systems in place.”

The variant has high infectivity and pathogenicity, Dr Van Kerkhove noted.

Although Arcturus had been found in other countries, most cases were from India where it had overtaken other variants, said Dr Van Kerkhove.

With the emergence of the new subvariant, some experts said that Covid-19 remains a concern.

Virologist Professor Lawrence Young from the University of Warwick told The Independent that the rise of the new variant in India is a sign that “we’re not yet out of the woods”.

“We have to keep an eye on it,” Prof Young told the British press.

“When a new variant arises you have to find out if it’s more infectious, more disease-causing, is it more pathogenic? And what’s going to happen in terms of immune protection.”

“These kinds of things highlight the importance of genomic surveillance, but a lot of countries including our own have let our guards down a bit, and we can’t be sure what variants are around and what level of infection they’re causing until we see a significant outbreak.”

In 2021, India was devastated by the Delta wave, with a total of 4.7 million excess deaths according to estimates by WHO.

The country’s health system was overwhelmed by a surge of cases triggered by the Delta Covid-19 variant, with some hospitals even running out of oxygen.

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Singapore , India , covid , Arcturus , variant


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