Arcturus: Cases of new Covid variant on the rise in India
Britain is facing five waves of Covid every year, with the latest Arcturus variant already in the country and likely to have an impact in three specific ways, a virologist has warned. Dr Lennard Lee was speaking after the new strain was blamed for a huge surge of cases in India, prompting health officials to reintroduce mandatory mask-wearing and start mock testing drills. As of April 11, 66 cases had been detected in the UK, with the figure likely to have risen significantly since then, Dr Lee acknowledged, while highlighting three key areas – vulnerable patients, the impact of long Covid, and disruption to schools.
The Independent SAGE adviser and Academic Clinical Lecturer in Medical Oncology at the University of Oxford told Express.co.uk he and colleagues were monitoring Arcturus carefully.
He explained: “It’s got new mutations on it which allow it to spread slightly better, not greatly better, but slightly better, and it has driven the recent surge across India.
“What we’re seeing at the moment is slightly different in terms of what it looks like in humans.”
He said: “There’s early data showing that it affects the eyes and it causes conjunctivitis.
“What it really points to is that this virus is clever, and it is continuing to evolve with time.
“The tricky thing is that what’s happening is viruses are emerging around the world and they spread very, very quickly nowadays, so they come to our shores very quickly.”
The UK was facing multiple waves of Covid in the future, Dr Lee warned.
He said: “We’re starting to see patterns now. So the virus doesn’t appear to be dying out. It seems to be hitting our shores, a new variant anywhere in the world, every two months at the moment.
“I think last year, we had five waves of virus hitting coming to us and again, it looks like we’re going have another five waves – this is another wave which will probably come start to ramp up again.”
It was still unclear whether Arcturus would eventually become the UK’s dominant variant, Dr Lee stressed.
He said: “I think it became the dominant way for India pretty quickly.
“The difficult thing is these variants can happen anywhere in the world and when they come, they sweep over the last version and bring a new wave through.
“It’s very hard to predict but what we do know is that we’re seeing patterns now and the pattern is, a variant will emerge and it will spread across the world.
“It is in the UK. We haven’t really seen it taken off just yet but the UKHSA is monitoring that.”
Dr Lee did not envisage the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) stepping up restrictions as a result of the emergence of Arcturus.
He said: “I think we’ve got into this strategy of living with Covid so I don’t envisage that there’s going to be any change from the Department of Health.
“I think ultimately, it’ll be like the Kraken variant where a large number of us gets infected and most of us will probably be okay with it because we are protected.
“So I doubt there’ll be any public health changes or immediate changes in terms of what we noticed as individuals in terms of our liberties; I don’t think they will be impacted.”
However, Dr Lee emphasised that the new variant – along with others which are certain to follow – would cause problems nevertheless.
He said: “The impacts are just going to be in three main areas. The first one is that vulnerable patients will be put at excess risk – people who can’t respond to the virus because they are on chemo because they’ve got a blood cancer, or because they are immunosuppressants for example.
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“I think our vulnerable will be affected and we’ll continue to see those people end up in hospital.
“And I think that’s sad, because with any surge, the vulnerable people end up in the hospital.
“I think it’s about 4,000 to 5,000 people a week who will end up in hospital until a hospital will be impacted and when we’ve got the waiting lists we have, it can be hard to deal with those people on top of everything else.”
The second area related to long Covid, Dr Lee said.
He continued: “We’re seeing a lot of people slow to recover from the virus and sometimes the recovery type takes many many months or years.
“So that’s the impact on our economy now, people not able to work because they’ve been afflicted quite badly by the virus.”
Finally, Dr Lee was also concerned schools may be forced to close if significant numbers of children start falling ill, and the consequent disruption to education.
He said: “If Arcturus does start to have obvious conjunctivitis symptoms, the schools and their education can be affected and parents can be pulled out of work again.
“So I think ultimately, the new variant could see a new wave and it’s going to affect these three main cohorts.
“More people ending up in hospital, long COVID taking our workforce out, and school children affected and childcare.”
It was reassuring that – so far at least – Arcturus did not appear to be any more deadly than previous strains, Dr Lee said.
However, he said: “Five waves of a disease hitting us every year is unusual.
“This is not like flu – this is very different. The most difficult thing is that this can hit us in the middle of summer where you don’t expect to have respiratory viruses.
“And largely, it can come from anywhere in the world and then come across here.”
As things stood, public health officials were reliant on the virus either ceasing to evolve or continuing to be a very mild disease, Dr Lee pointed out.
But he added: “The problem is that evolution is unpredictable. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future at the moment. I think we’re very lucky that this Arcturus is not a severe virus, but it will impact these three areas, vulnerable people, causing more long COVID and affecting children going to school.
“We cannot predict how this virus is going to evolve, that’s the first thing.
“We are very lucky that Arcturus is not more severe.
“But the issue is that variants can happen anywhere in the world and that evolution of the virus is entirely unpredictable.”
Looking to the future, Dr Lee said: “This virus is much more intelligent and much more creative than I thought it would possibly be, because it wants to survive and spread.
“We do very much have an arms race between our immune systems versus how this virus is able to evade it.
“It’s almost like we’ve ended up in a stalemate where our immune system can keep it mild at the moment, but it’s not eradicating it across humanity, the global population as a whole.”
Emphasising the importance of vaccine technology to keep pace with the disease, he concluded: “The issue is that first-generation vaccines have not stopped transmission, and you can still get COVID and pass it on.
“Vaccines are our tools and we need to keep improving them as the virus evolves too.
“Ultimately, we want to try and minimise these waves which keep landing on our shores and we have to hope that it continues to be mild like Arcturus, but also have the tools ready if it if it were to change.”
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