XBB.1.16 “Arcturus”, a new COVID-19 variant that appears to be more infectious than previous strains, has been confirmed in Los Angeles and comes with a strange new symptom that was previously extremely rare in coronaviruses.
Announced by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH), it is believed that the variant causes conjunctivitis (also known as “pink eye”) and officials are warning the public to practice standard COVID-19 precautions to slow its spread.
While there have been just three confirmed cases in LA county, the CDC predicts up to 8 percent of COVID-19 cases in California and 10 percent of cases nationally are due to XBB.1.16. It is believed to have a significant growth advantage over previous Omicron strains and is becoming dominant in countries that have reported it, primarily India.
While not fully confirmed by scientists, Arcturus is thought to increase the risk of conjunctivitis in people infected with it, with many reports of itchy and red eyes in new cases. It is possible that the increased pollen count in the air is boosting the number of reddened eyes, but similar symptoms have been reported from Indian XBB.1.16 patients, so data suggests the variant is to blame.
Conjunctivitis is characterized by redness of the eye, itching, and pain, and can be caused by virus infections. Previously, just 1-3 percent of COVID-19 cases reported this symptom. Whether SARS-CoV-2 could spread via fluid from the eyes has previously been considered, though it's not clear if that's the case.
Alongside conjunctivitis, Arcturus appears to share the same symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath, and does not seem to be any more dangerous than existing variants. As a subvariant of Omicron, vaccines are still expected to provide strong protection against it, though vulnerable people should exercise more caution due to how infectious the variant is.
Arcturus is currently a “variant of interest” for the WHO and it is being closely monitored; it is not yet considered a variant of concern.