‘Arcturus’ COVID variant shows threat of new wave of death, warns WHO

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference on the World Health Organization's 75th anniversary in Geneva, on April 6, 2023. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said 'the virus is still changing and is still capable of causing new waves of diseases and death'. (AFP via Getty Images)

The leader of the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned coronavirus is still capable of causing mass death.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the warning as the latest Omicron subvariant - XBB.1.16, known as “Arcturus” - circulates, though the WHO has previously said it carries no extra risk compared to previous subvariants.

He said reported COVID deaths have dropped 95% since the beginning of the year, though some countries have seen increases and 14,000 people have died from the disease globally in the past four weeks.

“An estimated one in 10 infections results in post-COVID-19 conditions,” he added, “suggesting hundreds of millions of people will need longer-term care.

“And, as the emergence of the new XBB.1.16 variant illustrates, the virus is still changing and is still capable of causing new waves of diseases and death.

NEW DELHI, INDIA  APRIL 23: Shoppers seen amid increase in the cases of Covid at Sarojini Nagar market, on April 23, 2023 in New Delhi, India. India on Saturday recorded an additional 501 Covid cases and 14 deaths in 24 hours. According to the data from the Union Ministry of Health, India reported 12,193 fresh Covid-19 cases in a span of 24 hours. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Shoppers in New Delhi. According to the WHO's risk assessment last week, India had seen the most 'Arcturus' cases. (Getty Images)

“We remain hopeful that some time this year, we will be able to declare an end to COVID-19 as a public health emergency of international concern, but this virus is here to stay and all countries will need to learn to manage it alongside other infectious diseases.”

As of 17 April, the Arcturus subvariant had been reported in 33 countries, with the most coming in India. Five people in England have died from it.

The risk assessment from a WHO report on Arcturus read: “Based on its genetic features, immune escape characteristics and growth rate estimates, XBB.1.16 may spread globally and drive an increase in case incidence.”

Read more: What is the COVID variant Arcturus and what are the symptoms?

However, it added there were “no early signals of increases in severity have been observed” in India and that “available evidence does not suggest that XBB.1.16 has additional public health risks relative to the other currently circulating Omicron descendent lineages”.

Meanwhile, speaking at the same briefing as Dr Tedros on Wednesday, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's COVID response lead, said the emergence of variants "indicates to us the virus continues to evolve, and it will continue to evolve because the virus is circulating pretty much unchecked.

"What we need to be able to do is keep surveillance up... because we have to remain vigilant. The virus is not going anywhere and we have to learn how to manage this appropriately."