Just when we thought we have finally escaped the worst phase of the pandemic, a new COVID variant has been detected in India. This new avatar of SARS-CoV-2 virus is considered to be the cause of the recent surge in Covid infections in parts of India. We all must remain watchful about how the scenario unfolds in the coming weeks. This column addresses the new variant and the resultant surge in COVID cases in India in 2023.
What is this new COVID variant?
The new variant is dubbed XBB.1.16. It has also been nicknamed “Arcturus” by variant trackers. XBB.1.16 is very similar to XBB.1.5 (nicknamed “Kraken”) - the most transmissible variant detected so far, according to Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Covid expert (Fortune, April 1, 2023).
Rise of XBB.1.16
The new variant was first detected in India in January 2023. The highest number of cases were found in Maharashtra and Gujarat (164 each) followed by Telangana (93 cases) and Karnataka (86 cases) (NDTV.com, Mar. 31, 2023).
As per preliminary data, XBB.1.16 seems to be highly transmissible though it is likely to cause mild illness.
A concerning thing is that this variant can also infect a fully vaccinated person. There has been a recent surge in cases in India (a daily caseload of about 3,000 for the last few days). The new variant could be driving this recent surge in India.
Arcturus cases elsewhere
This new variant has been seen in parts of USA. A sub-lineage called XBB.1.16.1 has also been spotted in Missouri and Michigan states in US.
XBB.1.16 and its descendants have also been detected in Singapore, Australia, the UK, Japan, Israel, Canada, Malaysia, Denmark, New Zealand, Germany, South Korea, Spain, the Netherlands, Thailand, Sweden, South Africa, Italy, and China etc.
How did XBB.1.16 - Arcturus evolve?
XBB.1.16 is a recombinant strain. It’s a combination of two descendants of BA.2 (the so-called “stealth Omicron”). As compared to the parent XBB variant, XBB.1.16 has three additional mutations.
Why is Arcturus variant so concerning?
XBB.1.16 is not yet known to trigger a rise in hospitalizations or deaths. Nonetheless, there are some key issues that make this variant a concerning one. First, it has got two key mutations that make it fitter than any other variant known so far, according to Dr Raj Rajnarayanan, New York Institute of Technology (Fortune, April 1, 2023).
n especially concerning mutation is K478R borne on the spike protein of the virus that make the variant better at evading antibodies from prior infections and vaccinations, enabling it to be more transmissible as well as potentially triggering serious infections.
Ways to tackle XBB.1.16 and other upcoming variants
The Omicron specific booster vaccine may provide some protection against the new variants. Paxlovid is a drug that may continue to work for some time. However, as newer variants emerge, the effectiveness of vaccines and drugs may slide further.
Therefore, it’s now advisable to mask up when you move out of your homes. Patients with fever and other viral infection symptoms must quarantine themselves, says Dr Naresh Trehan, Managing Director, Medanta Hospital (Zee News, Mar. 24, 2023). Persons with co-morbidities may be the worst victims of the new variants. We all must strictly adhere to Covid-appropriate behaviour such as masking, distancing and frequent hand sanitizations etc.
As multiple flu viruses continue to thrive together with XBB.1.16 in parts of India (for example, Karnataka), we must be extra cautious. There may be sudden rise in influenza-like infections (ILI) and Severe Acute Respiratory Infections (SARI) due to pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2 (Covid virus), H3N2 virus, H1N1 (Swine Flu virus), and the Adenovirus etc. (New Indian Express, Mar. 27, 2023).
The need of the hour is to once again accelerate the vaccination drive. There is the urgent need to enhance the rate of full vaccinations. Also, all the eligible populations must be administered the third dose as soon as possible. In addition, we must once again revive the test, track, and treat strategy as well as masking, distancing and sanitizations, if need be.
(The views expressed are personal)
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