Arcturus: New Covid variant sweeping India shows unique symptom in children

Spread of the strain is worrying experts after being found in countries including Singapore and Australia

Stuti Mishra
Saturday 15 April 2023 11:23 BST
Arcturus: What is the new Covid variant causing a surge in cases
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A new Covid variant dubbed Arcturus which is driving a surge of fresh cases in India seems to have some unique symptoms in children, experts have pointed out.

The XBB.1.16 strain, a sub-variant of Omicron, has been found in 22 countries, including Singapore, Australia, the UK and the US.

It is believed to be responsible for an uptick in infections in India, leading to the government adopting new measures to stop its spread, including bringing back some mask laws and running hospital drills.

India recorded 11,109 new cases on Friday, the country’s health ministry said, a sharp jump from 7,830 new Covid cases reported in the last 24 hours. The numbers reported are the highest in eight months with the active caseload surging to 49,622.

The spread of the strain, first detected in late January, is worrying experts, as it seems to exhibit unique symptoms in children, one of which is conjunctivitis.

Vipin Vashishtha, a paediatrician and former head of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Immunisation tweeted that “an infantile phenotype” of the variant seems to be emerging.

The symptoms of the variant include high fever, cough, and “itchy” conjunctivitis or pinkeye, Dr Vashishtha told the Hindustan Times newspaper.

Conjunctivitis – an eye infection causing redness, itchiness and swelling in the eyes – has previously been reported as a symptom of Covid, but not often, Richard Reithinger, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the nonprofit research institute RTI International, was quoted as saying to Fortune.

Researchers at Nebraska Medicine’s Truhlsen Eye Institute identified the virus in the eye’s tear film, which could lead to conjunctivitis.

Dr Vashishtha, however, said in his tweet that he treated infants with “high fever, cold and cough, and non-purulent, itchy conjunctivitis w/ sticky eyes, not seen in earlier waves”.

Other doctors have been seeing rising cases of Covid in children as well.

“Usually, these children come with simple respiratory infections of cough, cold and fever, and when tested they turn out to be positive,” paediatrician Dr Rahul Nagpal told India Today.

Dr Nagpal said the main symptoms of XBB.1.16 in adults resembled the flu, including a nasal discharge, sore throat and cough.

The Arcturus XBB.1.16 variant is a recombinant of two sub-variants of BA.2, and a preprint study from scientists at the University of Tokyo suggested that it spreads about 1.17 to 1.27 times more efficiently than its relatives XBB.1 and XBB.1.5.

Furthermore, it appears to be resistant to antibodies from other Covid variants, which has raised concerns about its potential to evade immunity gained from previous infections or vaccinations.

The XBB.1.16 strain, a sub-variant of Omicron, has been classified as a variant of interest by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid technical lead, previously said: “It’s (XBB.1.16) 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,” she said.

“It has one additional mutation in the spike protein which in lab studies shows increased infectivity as well as potential increased pathogenicity.”

Meanwhile, the world’s biggest vaccine maker is ramping up production to meet the rising demand as cases surge in India.

Adar Poonawalla, CEO, Serum Institute of India, told The Independent in a statement that the company has “resumed the production of the Covid-19 vaccine, Covishield, in response to the increasing number of SARS-CoV-2 virus infections”.

“The company also has six million doses of the Covovax vaccine, which are readily available to private hospitals depending on the demand and can also be used as heterologous booster doses,” he added.

“The company has taken this precautionary measure to ensure that people have the option of Covishield if they choose.”

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