Five people who had the Arcturus strain of Covid have died, according to the latest data from public health chiefs.
As of 17 April there were 105 cases of XBB.1.16 – also known as Arcturus – in England, with infections located in all regions apart from the North East.
Health chiefs have said that there is no evidence to suggest the new subvariant is more severe than past ones.
Professor Adam Finn, from the University of Bristol, who is also an advisor to the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccinations, told The Independent: “There’s no clear evidence that it’s a more dangerous variant in terms of case fatality rates, or hospitalisation rates than the previous and currently circulating subvariants.
“The deaths that we see [are] nearly all in the elderly and, of course, they are caused by whatever is circulating at the moment.”
He added: “Given that it [the variant] is around, then the deaths we’re going to see are going to be associated with it because it’s what’s around.”
Data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHAS) shows Arcturus makes up roughly 2.3 per cent of all new cases.
Professor Francois Balloux, professor of computational systems biology and director of the University College London’s Genetics Institute, said Arcturus is closely related to another subvariant XBB1.5, which is currently the dominant variant in the UK.
He said: “In places that didn’t have an XBB.1.5 wave (e.g. India or China), it is expected to do well (as did XBB.1.5). Conversely, in places like the UK, it is not expected to have much of an impact on case numbers, and even less so, on hospitalisations and deaths. XBB.1.16 is still at low frequency here in the UK, but it may become the next dominant variant in the future.”
The UKHSA said there was “insufficient data” to calculate the severity or vaccine effectiveness of Arcturus compared to other variants that are circulating.