Thailand sounds alarm as Arcturus strain arrives just in time for Songkran
Thailand is once again on the defensive against COVID-19 after laboratory tests showed that the new, more contagious subvariant XBB.1.16 has landed on these shores.
Dr Supakit Sirilak, director-general of the Medical Sciences Department, reported that 27 cases of XBB.1.16 had been detected in Thailand as of April 17 and one of these had died.
“The deceased was an elderly foreigner with underlying health conditions. His death, therefore, may not directly reflect the severity of this subvariant but rather its impact on other risk factors,” Supakit said.
Health authorities have raised the alarm about XBB.1.16 and urged the public to keep their guard up. But they said there is no need to panic.
Threat of XBB.1.16
XBB.1.16, also known as Arcturus, is a subvariant of the Omicron bug that swept across the world last year. On March 22, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed XBB.1.16 as a variant under monitoring (VUM).
XBB.1.16 was first detected in January and has since become prevalent in dozens of countries. The United States, for instance, recently estimated that XBB.1.16 accounted for 7.2% of new COVID-19 infections.
Arcturus is also becoming the dominant subvariant in India, where many patients have developed conjunctivitis or itchy pink-eye – a symptom that was missing in previous COVID-19 waves.
Health authorities, however, say that though XBB.1.16 is highly transmissible, it does not appear to cause more dangerous symptoms judging by the hospitalization and fatality rates.
How worried should we be?
Prof Wasun Chantratita, who heads Mahidol University’s Center for Medical Genomics, described XBB.1.16 as the most worrying COVID-19 subvariant because of its high transmissibility.
“It’s 200% more transmissible than BN1.3 and 89% more than XBB.1.5. These subvariants are now dominant in Thailand,” he said.
Prof Dr Yong Poovorawan, who heads the Center of Excellence in Clinical Virology at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine, said XBB.1.16 will inevitably become Thailand’s dominant subvariant soon.
He said all XBB strains appear able to evade immunity offered by vaccines and previous infections. This means people who have suffered a previous COVID-19 infection can get reinfected with XBB.1.16.
Dr Sopon Iamsirithaworn, deputy director-general of the Disease Control Department, is urging people not to panic. His advice is to keep your guard up and get a booster shot.
“If your last shot was administered more than four months ago, then it’s time to get a booster now,” he said.
The government is still offering free COVID-19 jabs at several locations and most people in Thailand have had a vaccine shot. However, since the protection provided by vaccines wanes over time, booster shots have also been made available.
96.69 percent of cases taken to court during Songkran involved drunk driving
COVID-19 situation in Thailand
Life was quickly returning to normal in Thailand before the arrival of XBB.1.16. The strongest evidence came with mid-April’s Songkran festival, when crowds of mask-free revelers splashed water around with abandon. After three years of pandemic restrictions, the raucous Songkran revelry returned in full force.
Now, however, COVID-19 has raised its head again and the Public Health Ministry is warning people to be prepared for another wave of infections.
Between April 9 and 15, the number of patients hospitalized with the virus was 435 – up 2.5 times from the previous week.
Dr Yong recently called on people in Thailand to brace for another surge in infections.
“The number of new COVID-19 cases will start rising from mid-May, peak in June and start falling in September – a common cycle for respiratory diseases,” he said.
He added that once children return to school and the rainy season starts, respiratory illnesses will spread more easily.
“However, people can protect themselves by using the same guidelines as before – washing hands frequently and getting a booster shot,” he said. “Those who feel ill should always wear a mask.”
By Thai PBS World