5 Fast Facts About the New COVID Variant, Arcturus

Updated: Jun. 26, 2023

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.

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