A new Covid variant that has sent cases skyrocketing in India has already reached more than half of states in the US, data suggests.
Health chiefs first detected ‘Arcturus’, a highly infectious spin-off of Omicron, in New York in late January. But it has since spread to 26 more states and triggered 235 cases, with hotspots emerging in California, New Jersey and Virginia.
The variant — known scientifically as XBB.1.16 — is believed to be the most infectious version of Omicron to date, but there is no evidence that it is more deadly than other currently circulating strains.
In India, it is believed to have single-handedly driven a 13-fold surge in cases within a month. Hospitals in the country are on red alert and some states have even brought back masking restrictions dumped more than a year ago.
The above map shows the states where the ultra-infectious variant has been detected to date
New Covid variant ‘Arcturus’ had driven a huge increase in cases in India over the past month
The US data is available on the global genome sequencing database GISAID, which monitors the spread of Covid variants.
It shows that in total, XBB.1.16 has been detected in 27 states with a total of 235 cases recorded to date.
These are likely an underestimate because only a handful of positive tests are analyzed for variants.
California is the hotspot for the new variant in the United States, with 54 sequences recorded to date.
What is ‘Arcturus’ and should we be worried?
A new Covid variant dubbed ‘Arcturus’ has sparked some concern after causing a surge of cases in India.
What is ‘Arcturus’?
‘Arcturus’ is the name that has been given to Omicron subvariant XBB.1.16.
It is a spin-off strain, similar to that of the Kraken variant (XBB.1.5).
Where has it been spotted?
It emerged in March and has been spotted since in 22 countries, but the largest outbreak by far is in India.
Why has it sparked concern?
‘Arcturus’ has led to a surge in cases in India with infections soaring 13-fold within the last month.
This has prompted the nation’s health authorities to run hospital drills and reintroduce mask mandates in some areas.
Is it dangerous?
‘Arcturus’ has mutations on its spike protein that the Word Health Organisation says could increase its ability to infect people as well as trigger disease.
Japanese researchers have suggested it is 1.2 times more infectious than the already super transmissible Kraken.
However, there is no evidence that it increases the severity of the disease.
But a rise in cases could put health services under pressure.
Do vaccines still work?
Early results suggest ‘Arcturus’ does not have any increased ability to evade protection from vaccines compared to other Omicron spin-offs
Rounding out the top five are New Jersey, 38 cases, Virginia (25) Texas (23) and New York (21).
The other states where the strain has been detected are: Washington, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Utah, Ohio, Minnesota, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, Iowa, Indiana, Hawaii, Delaware, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Oregon, Michigan, Massachusetts, Louisiana and Colorado.
Dr Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia in England, said he was not worried about the strain.
‘Yes, this variant does appear to spread more readily than other currently circulating variants,’ he told DailyMail.com.
‘But, on the other hand, it has been around for some time, first being seen in the UK in early February.’
He added: ‘Although in India it has taken off in the past few weeks so far it has not been increasing rapidly globally.
‘From what I can gather in reports from India, there is currently no evidence that it causes more severe disease.
‘I suspect we will see a wave of infections with this variant, but I doubt it will cause a big wave probably not even as great as [previous ones].’
Internationally, XBB.1.16 has been detected in 28 countries and Aruba — including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.
But India has been hit hardest by its emergence.
Officials there believe the variant is single-handedly driving the latest wave.
The nation’s ministry of health this week ran mock drills to check how prepared its hospitals were for another potential influx of patients.
And some states have brought back face masks in public settings, the first time for more than a year in some areas.
India’s Ministry of Health said there were 40,215 active Covid cases on April 12, up by 3,122 in just one day.
These Covid cases can include those who test positive while unwell at home as well as those in hospital.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently monitoring Arcturus, scientifically known as XBB.1.16.
It is yet to be added to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) weekly update on circulating Covid variants.
It was first detected in late January, with officials saying it has some mutations of concern.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid technical lead, 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.
‘It has one additional mutation in the spike protein which in lab studies shows increased infectivity as well as potential increased pathogenicity.’
Dr Van Kerkhove added that while XBB.1.16 had been detected in other countries, most sequences were from India, where it had replaced other variants.
She also said that thus far, there had been no reported change in disease severity in XBB.1.16 infections.
At present, the XBB.1.5 variant is dominant in the US, accounting for about 88 percent of cases according to estimates.
The above map shows the weekly rate of Covid infections by state in the United States. Although California is the XBB.1.16 hotspot, it does not have the highest case count in the US
The above shows the number of Covid cases detected in the US by week. Cases are heading downwards, but the data is less reliable because fewer and fewer people are getting tested
This map shows the Covid death rate in the United States per 100,000 people
This graph shows the number of deaths involving Covid reported by week in the United States
Omicron spin-offs have proven highly infectious and good at evading immunity when they have emerged.
But Covid has now become a background issue for many Americans.
The US is currently recording about 1,773 Covid deaths every week, compared to the 17,480 fatalities at the peak of the last wave last February.
It is also registering about 120,000 cases a week, but this is likely to be a major underestimate because many people with the disease are not getting tested.