A new Covid strain, dubbed ‘Arcturus’ is wreaking havoc in India and may be 1.2 times more infectious than the ‘Kraken’ variant.
Technically dubbed Omicron sub-variant XBB.1.16, the new variant is driving a fresh surge in Covid cases in the country with infections soaring 13-fold in the last month.
The rise in cases led India’s health ministry to run mock drills this week to check how prepared hospitals are to deal with a potential influx in 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.
New Covid variant ‘Arcturus’ had driven a huge increase in cases in India over the past month
While the rise is of some concern it is still far below the devastating wave of cases the country experienced in 2021 from the Delta wave
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 has been since spotted in 22 countries so far but the largest outbreak by far is in India.
Why has it sparked concern?
‘Arcturus’ has led to 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 Organization say could increase its ability to infect people as well as trigger disease.
Japaneses researchers have suggested it is 1.2 times more infectious than the already super transmissible Kraken.
However, there is no evidence it increases severity of 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
Separate figures from the Oxford University run platform Our World in Data show that new daily cases hit 3,108 on April 4, up from 242 one month earlier.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently monitoring XBB.1.16, which was first detected in late January, with officials saying it had 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.
But a pre-print study by Japanese scientists from the University of Tokyo suggested Arcturus is 1.2 times more infectious than the closely related Kraken Covid strain.
Uploading their findings to the biology research website bioRxiv they wrote this advantage suggests the new variant will ‘spread worldwide in the near future’.
They attributed this to mutations that could make it more difficult for the immune system to tackle and increase its growth rate.
However, they said there is no evidence that Arcturus had any greater ability to evade the protection offered by vaccines or prior infection compared to Kraken.
Kraken was the dominant strain in the UK by the end of February, causing 50.4 per cent of cases, according to ONS data, while Orthrus was behind at 19.7 per cent.
Technically XBB.1.5, the Omicron spin-off was considered the most infectious Covid variant yet and sparked concern after triggering a surge in cases in several countries.
However, while it triggered more cases the new strain did not cause more severe disease than its ancestor Omicron, already considered a ‘milder’ version of Covid.
The Japanese study has not yet been peer-reviewed.
The rise in cases triggered by Arcturus has led the Indian state of Haryana, in north of the country, to reintroduced masks in public places due to the ‘significant upsurge’ in Covid cases.
Veena George, Health Minister of southern state Kerela, on Saturday reintroduced masks for pregnant women, the elderly and those with underlying conditions.
On Monday and Tuesday, hospitals across India took part in mock drills to test their preparedness.
Office for National Statistics analysts estimate almost 1.7m Brits were carrying the virus on any given day in the week to March 13. This a jump of almost 14 per cent on the week before
An Office of National Statistics analysis has calculated how each much of each Covid wave infected the population of England. The latest, Omicron BA.4/5, was the biggest infecting 46.3 per cent of the population. Individuals could be represented twice in the data having, for example, caught Covid once at the start of the pandemic, then again during the Omicron surge
Officials have also told states to ramp up testing for the virus.
The drills and return of masks are a grim reminder of how the country was devastated by the Delta wave in 2021 with a total of 4.7million excess deaths according to WHO estimates.
India’s health system was overwhelmed by a surge of cases triggered by that Covid variant with some hospitals even running out of oxygen.
Like similar new Covid variants virus trackers online decided to call XBB.1.16 ‘Arcturus’ following a pattern of naming new strains after mythological entities.
Arcturus means ‘Guardian of the Bear’ and is related to the constellation called the Great Bear.