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New Strain XBB1.16 Believed to be Linked to Conjunctivitis in Children

A new COVID-19 subvariant called XBB1.16, also known as Arcturus has been detected globally and recently gained more attention globally as it has just arrived in North America and Europe. It is also potentially linked to conjunctivitis in children.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported detecting XBB.1.16 in January. Subsequently, they designated it as a new variant under monitoring (VUM) on March 22. While the VUM designation is less serious than a variant of interest or variants of concern, the WHO maintains that VUMs show “early signals of growth advantage relative to other circulating variants”. However, evidence about the precise impact remains unclear. Arcturus is a subvariant of the Omicron strain of COVID-19 that emerged toward the end of 2021.

What is XBB.1.16?

XBB.1.16 is a subvariant of the Omicron strain of COVID-19 that emerged toward the end of 2021. At least 29 countries have detected it, which is currently estimated to be behind 7% of COVID cases in the U.S. Also, it is possibly as much as 15% in some countries. While XBB.1.16 does not appear to cause more severe disease than other omicron subvariants, experts believe it to be the most transmissible yet.

XBB.1.16 and Conjunctivitis

Reports from India and other parts of the world suggest that XBB.1.16 could carry symptoms that are distinct from past strains, including conjunctivitis, or red or itchy eyes. Cases of conjunctivitis are also appearing mostly among children and adolescents. Usually, conjunctivitis is not typically considered a severe symptom of COVID-19. However, this new trend could lead to more severe outcomes among children affected by this symptom.

“One new feature of cases caused by this variant is that it seems to be causing conjunctivitis, or red and itchy eyes, in young patients. This is not something that we’ve seen with prior strains of the virus,” said Dr Matthew Binnicker, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Clinical Virology Laboratory at Mayo Clinic.

Impact on Public Health

XBB.1.16’s potential increased transmissibility and the emergence of conjunctivitis as a symptom are causes for concern among experts. The rise of XBB.1.16 in the U.S. and other countries could increase hospitalizations and deaths, particularly among vulnerable populations. India has already experienced a surge in cases in recent weeks. Additionally, XBB.1.16 has replaced the other variants that are in circulation. The country has had to resume vaccine production and bring back mitigation measures such as indoor masking.

The Way Forward

Experts are closely monitoring XBB.1.16’s potential impact on public health. The emergence of new variants of COVID-19 highlights the need for continued vigilance. This is particularly in the short term over the next several years. Health officials may need to reevaluate whether we have reached the endemic phase of the pandemic. They may potentially need to authorize yearly COVID boosters, similar to seasonal flu shots, to keep the virus at bay. The goal is to protect as many people as possible from the life-threatening impacts of COVID-19, including its subvariants such as XBB.1.16.


In conclusion, XBB.1.16, a new subvariant of the Omicron strain of COVID-19, has been reported as a potential cause of conjunctivitis in children. Currently, it is still unclear whether XBB.1.16 will lead to more severe disease or hospitalizations. However, some experts have raised concerns about its potential increased pathogenicity. Reports from India and other parts of the world suggest that it could carry symptoms that are distinct from past strains. The most significant is conjunctivitis, or red or itchy eyes. It is appearing mostly among children and adolescents.  With XBB.1.16 cases on the rise in many countries, it is vital to continue monitoring and adapting to the situation through vaccinations and public health measures to reduce the spread of this subvariant and its impact on children’s health.

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