New Covid variant ’of concern’

A new Covid-19 subvariant is ‘of concern’ to health authorities due to its high transmissibility. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Wayne Taylor

A new Covid-19 subvariant is emerging in Australia, with experts warning it might be one of the most transmissible strains so far.

Labelled Arcturus, the Omicron subvariant was first detected in India in January and has sparked a rise in infections and led to the reintroduction of mask mandates in some parts of the country.

Arcturus has also been designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation and is notable for conjunctivitis-like symptoms, particularly among children.

A new Covid subvariant, Arcturus, is gaining a foothold in Australia after originating in India. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Tertius Pickard

University of South Australia professor of biostatistics Adrian Esterman said it was “very difficult” to get hold of data on Arcturus, but early indications suggested it could be as much as 20 per cent more transmissible than the recent Kraken variant.

Professor Esterman said Arcturus was one of 600 Omicron subvariants, and it appeared it “could get around our immune system a bit better.”

He said it didn’t appear to cause an illness any more severe than Kraken, and hospitalisations hadn’t risen markedly in countries with large spikes of Arcturus.

Professor Esterman said early data suggested Arcturus represented about 5 per cent of all cases Australia wide.

Professor Adrian Esterman said it was ‘very difficult’ to obtain data on the most recent subvariant Arcturus. Picture: Supplied.

But he was critical of federal and state governments’ tracking of the virus.

“We used to get regular reports from wastewater monitoring – that’s completely stopped now,” Professor Esterman said.

According to the Department of Health’s weekly Covid data, average daily Covid-19 case numbers in the week leading to April 18 had increased by more than 16 per cent, with steep rises in NSW and Victoria.

The Department of Health said that according to Australia’s genomic surveillance system, AusTrakka, the Arcturus variant was first detected on February 22.

The department said it had been detected in all Australian jurisdictions since that date.

“The Australian government is aware of case reports claiming that conjunctivitis may be a more common symptom associated with (Arcturus) XBB. 1.16 infection,” a spokesperson said,

“Further follow up is needed to determine whether this observation is associated with an actual increase in incidence of conjunctivitis compared to previous variants.”