Five people die of Arcturus variant in UK as new Covid strain spreads

More than 100 XBB.1.16 cases have been identified in England

Five people who had contracted the Arcturus Covid variant in the UK have died.

The latest data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) states that 105 Covid patients were confirmed to be infected with the new strain - also known as XBB.1.16 - in England, as of 17 April. Of these cases, there were five deaths.

Arcturus cases have been identified in all regions of England, except the North East, and most cases were in London (30) and the North West (22). The median age of cases was 74 years old, and 54 cases were male and 50 cases were female.

The XBB.1.16 strain is now a designated variant as of 19 April due to its increasing international growth and it now makes up around 2.3% of all new cases in the UK, according to the UKHSA.

Five people who had contracted the Arcturus Covid variant in the UK have died (Photo: Getty Images)Five people who had contracted the Arcturus Covid variant in the UK have died (Photo: Getty Images)
Five people who had contracted the Arcturus Covid variant in the UK have died (Photo: Getty Images)

There is currently “insufficient data” to calculate the severity or vaccine effectiveness of Arcturus compared to other variants that are circulating. Health chiefs said sample numbers are still “very low and results may change as further data becomes available”.

Dr Meera Chand, Deputy Director, UKHSA told NationalWorld: “It is not unexpected to see new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerge. UKHSA continues to analyse all available data relating to SARS-CoV-2 variants in the UK and abroad and is monitoring the situation closely.

“XBB.1.16 currently accounted for 2.3% of UK sequences between 3 April and 9 April. It is not currently designated a variant of concern.

“Vaccination remains our best defence against future Covid-19 waves, so it is still as important as ever that people come take up all the doses for which they are eligible as soon as possible.”

It comes after the World Health Organisation (WHO) upgraded Arcturus to a “variant of interest” last week, meaning the strain has mutations that are suspected or known to cause significant changes, and is spreading widely in several countries.

The WHO has been monitoring the variant since 22 March and warned it is “one to watch” as it has one additional mutation in the spike protein which, in lab studies, shows “increased infectivity”.

Research indicates Arcturus could be one 1.2 times more infectious than the last major sub-variant, which was Omicron. It has a similar profile to its predecessor XBB.1.5, but its additional mutation makes it more infectious and potentially more pathogenic, Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19, said at a press conference last month.

While this does not indicate it is causing more severe disease among those who are infected, the spike protein mutation makes the new variant more capable of escaping antibodies from previous immunity gained either from vaccination or infection.

Ms van Kerkhove explained: “It’s actually very similar in profile to XBB.1.5. It has one additional mutation in the spike protein which in lab studies shows increase infectivity, as well as potential increased pathogenicity. So, it’s one that we are monitoring (...) because it has potential changes that we need to keep a good eye out on.”

Arcturus has so far been detected in 29 countries, including the UK, the US, Australia and Singapore, although most of the samples are from India.

A UKHSA briefing published last said India, which accounts for 61% of reported cases globally, continued to see a rise in cases linked to Arcturus. Between 20 March and 3 April, case numbers in the country almost doubled within four weeks, rising to 11,109 on 14 April.

But the UKHSA said that based on the epidemiological and laboratory data, it was unclear whether the growth will be replicated in the UK. It said: “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.”

The main symptoms of Arcturus reported so far include a high fever, a cough and “itchy” conjunctivitis, with the latter being particularly common among children. Conjunctivitis - also known as red or pink eye - usually affects both eyes and can make them become red and itchy, watery, produce pus that sticks to lashes, and they may burn or feel gritty.

Dr William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine, health policy, and professor, Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University, said the additional mutation in the spike protein makes Arcturus “even more contagious than Omicron”, but its symptoms do not tend to be particularly severe.

He told Healthline: “It has a tendency to produce a high fever. Omicron can produce a fever, but many people get infected who don’t have a fever at all. The cause for the fever in the Arcturus variant is because of an inflammatory response in the body, which is distinctive in this variant. The other thing that is even more distinctive is that, particularly in children, it has the tendency to produce conjunctivitis, which is the inflammation of the outside of the eye.”