New COVID subvariant appears to be causing conjunctivitis

Experts are seeing a rise in cases of conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, specifically in the pediatric population.
A second grade student is given a at-home COVID-19 test.
Posted at 4:37 PM, Apr 19, 2023

The new COVID-19 Omicron subvariant XBB.1.16, better known as "Arcturus," has been linked to a new symptom.

According to experts, the new variant that is now being closely monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appears to be more contagious than other subvariants, and it’s also causing red, itchy eyes.

"One new feature of cases caused by this variant is that it seems to be causing conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, in young patients. This is not something that we've seen with prior strains of the virus," said Dr. Matthew Binnicker, director of the Clinical Virology Laboratory at Mayo Clinic.

The variant is the sister variant of XBB.1.5, known as "Kraken," and while the variant is circulating at low levels in the U.S., the CDC and the World Health Organization say it has a higher transmissibility rate than previous strains, though it doesn't appear to be more dangerous.

Person receiving a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot.

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"These variants are almost not the same as we saw in our original viruses. These are actually recombinant variants, meaning that they are a combination of two previous variants that have married, if you will, and given us something new as opposed to these new mutations arising," Dr. Jayne Morgan, Executive Director of the COVID Task Force at Piedmont Healthcare, explained to Scripps News.

Arcturus is now responsible for a massive surge of new cases in India, and cases have been confirmed in 29 countries. However, the WHO saysthat no hospitalizations or deaths have been reported due to the variant.

India's Health Ministry announced Wednesday that there were 63,562 new cases of COVID-19, which is a significant rise from the 16,354 cases thatwere reported April 1.

As for the U.S., the CDC’s variant tracker estimated that Arcturus cases comprised 7.2% of COVID-19 infections in the week of April 8–15.