Arcturus: A new COVID-19 variant that causes pink eye

A new COVID-19 variant called Arcturus spreads via your eyes. Health experts believe it can give you pink eye and spread faster than previous variants.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
New Covid-19 variant may cause pink eye
New Covid-19 variant may cause pink eye


A new Omicron strain referred to as Arcturus (XBB.1.16) can cause conjunctivitis in COVID-19 patients, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH). This new variant is already responsible for 10 percent of the total coronavirus cases in the U.S. at present.

“Observational data suggests that people infected with XBB.1.16 may be more likely to experience conjunctivitis as a symptom of their COVID infection, along with more traditional COVID symptoms, such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath,” said LACDPH officials. 

Arcturus has been currently labeled as a “variant of interest” by WHO, which means that it’s infecting many people but is not a “variant of concern” (a fast-spreading variant that has the potential to escape current treatments and the body’s immune responses).   

However, since not much data is available on the strain, the health authorities are keeping a close eye on XBB.1.16 cases to see whether or not the infection could lead to more severe illness. 

Conjunctivitis due to COVID shouldn’t be ignored

Interestingly, previously, between one to three percent of total COVID patients experienced pink eye. So, this isn’t the first time pink eye or conjunctivitis has emerged as a symptom of the coronavirus infection. In fact, WHO already considers pink eye as a symptom of COVID-19.

However, apart from being highly infectious, what makes conjunctivitis a really bad symptom is that it affects the most delicate organ of the body, and if ignored, it could damage the cornea, the part which prevents infections and allows the entry of light into the eye.

Health officials suggest that the current increase in pink eye cases in LA can be linked to the ongoing allergy season in California. They warn, “However, residents should be aware that itchy, watery or red eyes may be a sign of a COVID-19 infection, and these symptoms should not be simply dismissed as a result of pollen or seasonal allergies, especially if someone more vulnerable to severe illness could be exposed.”

Earlier this year, cases of XBB.1.16 were reported in India. Although the virus didn’t lead to any severe symptoms or hospitalization, it spread very quickly. For instance, as of April 2023, the strain had already infected people in over 30 countries globally. 

The health official at LACDPH claims that the new strain comes with a mutation that can cause severe health problems in elderly patients and people with existing medical conditions. 

They recommend such individuals “may want to take extra precautions to avoid infection, including making sure they have received a bivalent booster, frequent hand washing, avoiding touching their eyes and face, staying home when sick and testing. Those at higher risk of severe illness may also want to consider masking in crowded places.”

Can existing COVID vaccines save us from Arcturus?

In the coming months, XBB.1.16 can possibly increase the COVID-19 infection rate across the U.S., and therefore we might also see a rise in pink eye patients. However, as mentioned earlier, so far the variant has not led to any serious illness in patients across the globe. 

This hints that the immunity developed by existing vaccines has managed to keep people safe from Arcturus. The health experts at LACDPH also suggest that since Arcturus is a version of the old Omicron variant, our existing vaccines will remain effective against the virus. 

However, what’s really a matter of concern is the constant rise of new COVID variants. “The fact that we are seeing new strains, with possibly new and different symptoms, tells us that COVID continues to evolve and the way we think about our protections should reflect what we know,” said the LACDPH officials.

Events in the past have proved that the right information at the right time could play a crucial role in saving lives and preventing the spread of infection. Hopefully, the early insights on Arcturus from LACDPH will also strengthen our efforts against COVID-19 and serve as an important tool in spreading awareness about the new variant. 

You can read the LACDPH news release here.

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