5 Fast Facts About the New COVID Variant, Arcturus

The new Arcturus COVID variant is spreading quickly and is causing a particular symptom. Here's what you need to know about the Arcturus COVID variant.

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Just as the COVID-19 public health emergency is set to expire and many Americans have relaxed back into to our pre-pandemic lifestyles, a new COVID-19 strain is heading toward our shores. XBB.1.16, or the Arcturus COVID variant, was first spotted in India in January 2023, where it fueled an uptick in cases.

Now, this strain is gaining traction in the United States. As of April 24, 2023, the Centers for Disease Contro land Prevention (CDC) reported that the Arcturus strain accounts for 10% of infections here.

Here, two top COVID-19 experts break down the five things you need to know about the Arcturus COVID variant.

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Arcturus COVID variant is a relative of the Omicron strain

Omicron is the COVID-19 strain that wreaked havoc on our lives in late 2021 and early 2022. When a virus replicates, it can develop mutations that make it different from earlier versions. Omicron sires more of these mutations mainly because it is especially contagious. Arcturus is the latest one, says Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonary specialist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

(Curious about the name Arcturus? It’s named after a star in the northern celestial system and, according to some sources, translates to the phrase “the guardian of the bear.” On April 24, 2023, Time reported that the letters A and R in the name convey its lineage from Omicron.)

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WHO is watching Arcturus

On April 20, 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) upgraded Arcturus to a “variant of interest” based on how quickly it seems to be spreading. So far, Arcturus has been detected in more than 20 countries—including the U.S.

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Arcturus may cause pink eye

Dr. Horovitz says conjunctivitis or pink eye—crusty, itchy, and goopy eyes—seem to be more common with the Arcturus variant than other COVID-19 strains, especially among kids. “Pink eye is a relatively new COVID-19 symptom and it spreads quickly,” Dr. Horovitz says.

Other Arcturus symptoms may include high fever and cough.

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Arcturus COVID variant may be more contagious than its relatives

Arcturus does appear to be more contagious than prior strains, but exactly how much more contagious isn’t known yet, says Jack C. O’Horo, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN—but don’t hit the panic button yet. “I am not more concerned about this than prior subvariants,” Dr. O’Horo says, adding that “several contagious ones have come and gone, and this one doesn’t appear to be more severe than others in the Omicron lineage.”

The bottom line? “It bears close watching, but the current data don’t suggest any need for action other than updating your vaccine if you’re eligible and haven’t already.”

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COVID-19 isn’t over

The public health emergency is slated to end in mid-May, but COVID-19 isn’t going away, Dr. O’Horo says. “This is indeed a reminder that it’s not gone and that we have to be vigilant to do appropriate prevention.”

COVID-19 prevention involves keeping up to date with boosters, washing your hands thoroughly, and staying home when you are sick, he says.

Seek treatment if you are at high risk for severe COVID, adds Dr. Horovitz. Available remedies synch as Paxlovid can help take the sting out of the infection when you start taking it as soon as possible after you test positive, he says.

“People want to move on, but the virus just doesn’t,” Dr. Horovitz says.

To stay current on COVID-19 trends, get The Healthy @Reader’s Digest newsletter and follow The Healthy on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter. Keep reading:
Interview with Len Horovitz, MD, pulmonary specialist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City Interview with Jack C. O'Horo, MD, an infectious disease specialist, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracker. https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#variant-proportions

The World Health Organization. Weekly epidemiological update on COVID-19 - 20 April 2023.

  White House. H.R. 382 – A bill to terminate the public health emergency declared with respect to COVID-19.

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.