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  • A new strain of SARS-CoV-2 has experts concerned
  • The XBB.1.16 strain dubbed “Arcturus” was discovered in India and has spread to 29 other countries.
  • This strain appears to lead to higher fevers than other omicron-related strains.

A new COVID-19 sub-variant has been catching the attention of the World Health Organization. This omicron variant, XBB.1.16, otherwise known as “Arcturus” causes patients to exhibit many of the familiar symptoms of previous variants of COVID-19, as well as the addition of a new symptom: conjunctivitis.

The new, highly contagious variant was first discovered in India and is now present in 29 other countries. Experts say that it is a variant that is currently of interest, but is not, at the moment, cause for concern. Here is what we know about the latest variant of COVID-19.

“It has been reported that it is similar in profile to previous omicron sub-variants, however an additional mutation in the spike protein could Ieave it potential for increased infectivity and pathogenicity,” said Hannah Newman, MPH, director of infection prevention at Lenox Hill Hospital.

Newman pointed out that the strain is considered a “Variant Under Monitoring” by the World Health Organization.

“Arcturus is an omicron sub-variant, so it’s related to omicron,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine, health policy, and professor, Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University. “Number two, it has one additional mutation in that spike protein that makes it even more contagious than omicron.”

Schaffner explained that this new variant produces the same disease as previous variants and does not seem to be ultra severe, but there are some clinical characteristics that make it different.

“First, it has a tendency to produce a high fever. Omicron can produce a fever, but many people get infected who don’t have a fever at all.”

The cause for the fever in the Arcturus variant is because of an inflammatory response in the body, which is distinctive in this variant.

“The other thing that is even more distinctive is that, particularly in children, it has the tendency to produce conjunctivitis, which is the inflammation of the outside of the eye,” said Schaffner.

The same methods that we have been using to keep ourselves safe from COVID-19 over the past three years still apply with the latest Arcturus variant.

“The measures to prevent COVID-19 remain the same with the Arcturus sub-variant,” said Newman. “Stay up-to-date with vaccinations and boosters, wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands, and aim to spend time outdoors or in well-ventilated areas.”

Getting vaccinated is one of the best things that we can do in order to prevent serious illness from COVID-19. And while the effects of the new sub-variant vaccine are similar to the original COVID-19 illness, the virus itself has changed quite a bit and is better at evading the original vaccines. That is why it is important to get boosted with the new bivalent booster, which also targets multiple strains of SARS-CoV-2 including the omicron strain.

“Less than 20% of people have so far been vaccinated with this new bivalent variant booster,” said Schaffner. “Please get boosted.”

Right now the new Arcturus sub-variant has experts watching closely, but they are not yet concerned about it the way they were for the initial outbreak of the virus. Still, staying cautious is a good idea.

“There is no reason to panic,” said Newman. “We have seen variants classified as [variants under monitoring] before that don’t end up being a big deal. However, in our post-COVID world where restrictions are being lifted and prevention measures being loosened, it’s a good time to watch the numbers and think about being more vigilant with safety measures.”

Schaffner added that if you’re in a high risk group – older than 65 or any age with underlying illness, pregnant, and of course if you’re immunocompromised, those groups should continue to be careful wearing the masks and be very thoughtful about going to indoor events where there are a lot of people.

“This reminds us once again that we are part of a global community,” he said. “What happens over there can come over here fairly quickly. Countries are keeping their guard up and it does remind us that although we’re past the pandemic phase of COVID, COVID hasn’t disappeared. To quote an old hero of mine, Yogi Berra, ‘It ain’t over ’til it’s over.’ I add to that, it ain’t over yet.”