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What to know about the newest COVID-19 variant

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's been a while since we've talked variants, and there's a new one. Arcturus, scientifically known as XBB.1.16, is a subvariant of omicron and was first found in India this January and was declared a variant of interest by the World Health Organization last month. Carlos del Rio teaches medicine at Emory University, and he joins us now. Thank you for coming back to the program.

CARLOS DEL RIO: Delighted to be with you.

RASCOE: So let's start with the basics here. How is Arcturus different from other variants and subvariants that we've seen in the past?

DEL RIO: You know, this strain is being monitored very carefully just because it's rapidly growing and now represents about 15% of strains isolated in the United States. And what's interesting about this variant is it has certain mutations that make it more transmissible. It's about 1.2 times more infectious, more transmissible, than prior variants. So what we're going to see is, over the next several months and into the summer, this will become the dominant variant in the United States. And it doesn't produce more severe disease, and we need to say that. But it is more contagious without doubt.

RASCOE: You said that it doesn't produce more serious illness. Are there any symptoms associated with Arcturus that may be different from omicron and other variants?

DEL RIO: Symptoms that we see with this variant include very high fever, cough, cold-like symptoms. But there's something that has come back. During omicron, that loss of sense of taste and smell kind of disappeared. And now this is again a common symptom. And the other symptom that is seen and is primarily being seen in children is conjunctivitis - is pinkeye. So if you have a kid and the kid has pinkeye, you need to think about COVID as being one of the possible diagnoses.

RASCOE: So nearly 70% of Americans are now vaccinated, and COVID deaths are down by 95% since January 2021. The Biden administration says it's ending the public health emergency later this week. Is Arcturus a threat to those very promising statistics and to the end of the public health emergency?

DEL RIO: That's a very complicated question. But let me try to to break it down for your audience. Number one, we have a lot of immunity, and we call this a immunological wall. The challenge, though, is that it - CDC recently changed the recommendations and said in order to be up to date in your immunizations, you need to have received the bivalent booster. And only 16% of the U.S. population has received their bivalent booster. And furthermore, the people that I worry the most about are those over the age of 65. And among those over the age of 65, only 46% have received one bivalent booster. And virtually nobody has received a second bivalent booster, which they should. You know, the Biden administration is ending, as you say, the public health emergency on May 11. What's going to happen on May 12? The availability and access to vaccines and boosters for free continues to exist. As long as there is a supply, nothing is changing.

How about home testing? What's going to happen? Well, something is changing. At-home testing, those over-the-counter tests, are not going to be for free anymore. And depending on your insurance, your insurance may pay for it, may not pay for it. But this is an issue that, you know, I tell people, you still have a few days. Go to the government's site, get your four COVID tests that you can get before May 11 and keep them at home. And the last one is treatments. Again, nothing is changing. As long as there's treatments available - and there's still plenty of treatments available - if you get a prescription from your doctor and May 12 you go to the drugstore to get, you know, your Paxlovid or any other medication for COVID, it's still going to be available for free.

RASCOE: So looking ahead, what should people be doing to keep themselves safe, you know, especially folks who are at a higher risk of getting very sick from COVID?

DEL RIO: Well, I think I tell people that they need to do the following things. Number one is you need to be up to date on your vaccinations which means if you have not received a bivalent booster, you need to get one. And if you're over the age of 65 and you already received one more than four months ago, you need to get a second one. Number two, order your free COVID tests and keep them at home. If you develop symptoms, test yourself. And if you test positive for COVID and you are at high risk - if you're over the age of 60, over the age of 65 - go ahead and start therapy because, you know, treatment with Paxlovid makes a huge difference. And I remind people that treatment is not because your symptoms are severe. It's actually because your risk of developing severe disease is high. And that's primarily determined by your age, also by your degree of immunosuppression, so if you're a very immunosuppressed individual, that is clearly an issue.

And the third thing you need to do is to stay alert and to realize, you know, you may put yourself at risk. You may go to a meeting. You may go to an event. And that's a decision that we need to personally take. Am I capable to get infected or not? The risk evaluation is very different between a 25-year-old otherwise healthy individual and an 80-year-old, you know, individual with severe lung disease. They may think very differently about how risky it is to go to a wedding, for example, or go to a big event. But in general, you know, people are assuming their normal lives. And I think what we need to do is stay ahead in our immunizations, stay up to date and make sure that we get diagnosed, and we get started on therapy when appropriate.

RASCOE: Carlos del Rio is a distinguished professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine. Thank you so much for joining us.

DEL RIO: Delighted to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Lennon Sherburne