A new Covid variant is wreaking havoc in some parts of the world including India and Britain and there are fears it could spread all over the world.
Health chiefs first detected ‘Arcturus’ last month. Almost 50 cases have now been spotted.
Hospitals in India are now on red alert, with compulsory face masks being brought back in some states to curb exploding infection rates which have soared 13-fold in the last month.
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‘Arcturus’ is a spin-off of Omicron, and is thought to be the most contagious variant yet.
However, top scientists don’t expect the variant — scientifically called XBB.1.16 — to be more lethal than other types of Covid currently circulating.
Nowadays the illness caused by the coronavirus closely resembles that of flu, unlike during the earliest days of the pandemic.
The UK Health and Security Agency said the variant was already in the UK in its final variant report issued last month.
Separate data collected from variant trackers report that the UK has now sequenced almost 50 samples of Arcturus.
Officials in India 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.
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.
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 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
These Covid cases can include those who test positive while unwell at home as well as those in hospital.
Separate figures from the Oxford University-run platform Our World in Data show new daily cases hit 3,108 on April 4, up from 242 one month earlier.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently monitoring Arcturus, scientifically known as XBB.1.16.
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.
Meanwhile, a study by Japanese scientists has 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 that 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.
Technically XBB.1.5, the Omicron spin-off was at the time considered the most infectious Covid variant yet and sparked concern after triggering a surge in cases in several countries.
However while triggering more cases, the new strain did not cause more severe disease than its ancestor Omicron, already considered a ‘milder’ version of Covid.
The rise in cases triggered by Arcturus has led the Indian state of Haryana, in the north of the country, to reintroduce masks in public places due to the ‘significant upsurge’ in Covid cases.
Veena George, Health Minister of southern state Kerala, 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.
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.