What is the COVID variant Arcturus and what are the symptoms?

The 'Arcturus' XBB.1.16 strain of the virus is a subvariant of Omicron.

A healthcare worker collects a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test swab sample from a Hindu devotee after he arrived to take a holy dip in the waters of Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers, to mark Paush Purnima or full moon day, during the Magh Mela festival in Prayagraj, India, January 6, 2023. REUTERS/Ritesh Shukla
A new COVID variant Arcturus has caused a huge uptick in infections in India. (Reuters)

Five people in England have died from the new COVID variant dubbed Arcturus, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has confirmed.

The latest technical briefing on COVID variants in England states that 105 sequenced cases of XBB.1.16 have been identified - 54 were men, 50 women, and one person whose gender was not recorded. The average age was 74.

London recorded the most cases with 30, while the north west region recorded 22. Five cases have been identified in Scotland, eight in Wales, and two in Northern Ireland. No cases have been recorded in the North-east.

The new variant has been linked to a surge in cases of coronavirus in India, with the World Health Organization (WHO) recently classifying it as a variant of interest.

What is the COVID variant Arcturus?

The XBB.1.16 strain of coronavirus is a sub-variant of Omicron, but health chiefs have said that there is no evidence to suggest the strain is more severe than past subvariants.

Data from the UKHSA shows Arcturus makes up roughly 2.3 per cent of all new cases.

In India, where it was first detected and is most prolific, the spread has led the government to take measures to stop its spread, including reintroducing the use of face masks in public spaces. `

The country has asked states to identify emergency hotspots and ramp up-testing for COVID-19 in reaction to the surge.

A healthcare worker collects a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test swab sample from a woman amidst the spread of the disease, at a railway station in New Delhi, India, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
India's federal government asked states to identify emergency hotspots and ramp up-testing for COVID-19. (Reuters)

What are the most common symptoms?

According to the ZOE Covid study the three most common symptoms are now a sore throat, a runny or blocked nose, and sneezing, while fever and loss of sense of taste or smell – previously among the most common signs of the virus – are no longer in the top 10.

According to the GAVI global health partnership, anecdotal reports in India suggest Arcturus may be associated with "itchy" or "sticky" eyes, as well as a high fever and cough. Paediatrician Dr Rahul Nagpal told India Today: "Usually, these children come with simple respiratory infections of cough, cold and fever, and when tested they turn out to be positive."

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

Does the COVID vaccine protect against Arcturus?

The UKHSA has said there is “insufficient data” to calculate the severity or vaccine effectiveness of Arcturus compared to other variants that are circulating.

The agency said that based on the epidemiological and laboratory data, it was unclear whether the growth seen in India will be replicated in the UK.

“XBB.1.16 is currently at a low prevalence in the UK, showing some early evidence of growth advantage (low confidence due to low sample numbers), and will be monitored,” they said in a report published on Friday.

White text on dark blue background. The different colors of the coronivirus spike proteins symbolize the mutations of the vrius.
There is no evidence 'Arcturus' has caused an increase in hospitalisations or deaths. (Getty)

Which countries have the highest COVID rates right now?

Daily new COVID cases in India have more than tripled from around 2,000 at the end of March.

The country has recorded more than 44.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic three years ago, the third-highest tally after the United States and China, and has a death toll from the virus of more than 530,000.

Read more: Nearly 60,000 people have died of Covid in China in past five weeks (Guardian, 3 min)

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has dropped out of the top five leading causes of death in England and Wales for the first time since the start of the pandemic, figures from Office for National Statistics (ONS) show.

Coronavirus was recorded as the main cause of death for 22,454 people in 2022, or 3.9% of all deaths registered, making it the sixth leading cause overall.

By contrast, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease was the leading cause in England and Wales in 2022, with 65,967 deaths registered (11.4% of the total), up from 61,250 (10.4%) in 2021.

Read more: COVID-19 no longer a leading cause of death in England and Wales (Yahoo, 4 min)