LA County reports first cases of new Arcturus COVID strain

Los Angeles County last week reported the first local cases of a newly emerging strain of COVID-19, although the numbers remain generally low and current vaccines are believed to be effective in preventing severe illness from it.

Commonly referred to as Arcturus, the strain is formally known as XBB.1.16, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told reporters in a briefing. According to the results of the most recent sequencing of select cases, the strain represented roughly 1.3% of the cases that were examined.

That's a mere fraction of the currently dominant strain in the nation and county, known as XBB.1.5, which accounts for 71% of local cases according to the most recent testing data.

Modeling done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that Arcturus accounts for about 7% of cases nationwide, and nearly 10% of cases in the western region that includes California, Ferrer said.

Arcturus has primarily been seen in India, and Ferrer said experts are still analyzing its effects. While no formal studies have been done, she said anecdotal evidence out of India suggests the variant appears to be infecting young children at higher rates than other strains.

She also said the strain appears to be more often linked to the development of pink eye, or conjunctivitis. But Ferrer said the evidence is still anecdotal, so it's still too early to say definitively that pink eye is more common with XBB.1.16.

Ferrer said the county will be closely monitoring spread of the virus strain, but she noted that XBB.1.16 and all other currently circulating strains are offshoots of the Omicron variant, which is targeted by the currently available COVID-19 vaccine booster.

While the new strain should not be considered cause for alarm, Ferrer said it should serve as a reminder that COVID-19 continues to evolve, and residents should continue to exercise caution against virus spread.

She noted that Los Angeles County is still in the "low" COVID community level category, for the 14th week in a row.

"We are seeing much lower numbers of people dying. However, these deaths are not insignificant, and COVID continues to be a leading cause of death in L.A. County and across the country," she said.