The recent surge in COVID-19 cases to alarming levels
in India shows clearly that the pandemic is not yet over. Experts point to the virus’ emerging Omicron subvariant XBB.1.16, also dubbed Arcturus, as the culprit.
Compared with the currently globally predominant XBB.1.5 Omicron subvariant, Arcturus bears two new mutations
on its spike protein, according to a pre-print scientific article. These do not necessarily make the emergent variant more lethal than other circulating strains, but they do result in a much more transmissible virus.
The preprint estimates that Arcturus could spread 17 percent more quickly than XBB.1.5. The WHO designated Arcturus as a “variant under monitoring
” in its Weekly Epidemiological Update published March 30.
In the densely packed cities of India, Arcturus’ high transmissibility led to thousands upon thousands of new cases. In fact, last week, the country counted more than 45,000 new cases, a threefold jump from the week before, according to a report
from The National
Seeking to control case counts, the Ministry of Health has launched a campaign
to promote, once again, public health measures against Covid-19. These include wearing masks, washing hands, and staying away from public places. India drastically eased
its pandemic restrictions in March 2022.
To aid the government’s efforts, the Serum Institute of India has also restarted its production
of Oxford-AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine Covishield. The Institute has more than 6 million doses of Novavax’s Covovax ready tor roll out.
Also grappling with Arcturus’ strong transmissibility is Nepal, which last week found the emerging variant in all swabs
collected from coronavirus-positive patients. Doctors in the country suspect that Arcturus could now be the dominant variant in the country.
Nepal first detected
Arcturus in early April.
As in the case of India, Arcturus will put Nepal’s public health infrastructure to the test. Amid rising cases, the country’s finance ministry is cutting down the health budget. In an interview with The Kathmandu Post
, an unnamed Health Ministry official said that they were instructed to reduce the annual budget “by up to 42 percent.”
It does not help that the South Asian nation is also currently without a health minister and its National Immunization Advisory Committee, which was tasked to make important decisions regarding vaccination, ended its tenure last December 2022.
Vaccination had also always been difficult for Nepal. Despite being one of the first countries
in the region to start an immunization campaign, its early inoculation drive was hamstrung by supply problems and public hesitancy.
These dire situations in the two South Asian countries amid a COVID-19 surge come at a time when the region is confronted by a myriad of challenges, including climate change, compounding pandemic woes that are here for the long haul.