Nothing in life is certain except death, taxes and that the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to mutate. Although the White House and the World Health Organization recently declared an end to the public health emergencies characterizing the last three years of the pandemic, the pathogen responsible for COVID continues to circulate, still infecting large numbers of people daily. people, hospitalizing them and sometimes killing them. or giving them lasting symptoms.
In the United States, 1,100 people died of COVID in the week ending May 3, so even though recent statistics suggest COVID deaths have plummeted in 2022. Still, the disease ranks fourth among the leading causes of deaths in the United States, which means it still kills huge numbers of Americans.
It is true that infections and deaths are trending down and we have better tools than ever to control COVID. But it’s also true that viruses naturally mutate, often developing new strategies to evade our defenses.
Meanwhile, as SARS-CoV-2 mutates, its symptoms often manifest differently. And the latest batch of variants that are spreading in North America appear to have symptoms very similar to allergies, specifically conjunctivitis or pink eye. That means a lot of people have COVID, thinking it’s just related to the weird, unusually bad allergy season. Unfortunately, unlike allergies or the flu, there is nothing “mild” about COVID, not even the newer variants, infections of which can still cause brain damage and long COVID.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keeps a weekly tally estimating the total percentage of virus strains currently in circulation. All are currently children or grandchildren of the omicron variant that appeared in late 2021. For most of this year, Americans have been battling Kraken (XBB.1.5), but it is slowly being replaced by its offspring, like Arcturus ( XBB.1.16).
According to CDC data, Kraken accounted for about 67% of cases in the week ending May 6, down from its peak of 84% in April. Meanwhile, Arcturus has risen to around 12.5% of cases, down from just 1% at the end of March.
Although the string of numbers and letters in a variant’s name may seem confusing – which is why nicknames exist – they may represent significant differences between virus strains that manifest with entirely different symptoms. They can also allow the virus to better infect different areas of the body. The delta strain, for example, was more likely to infect the lower respiratory tract, while the omicron primarily affects the upper respiratory tract, generally causing less damage to the lungs.
Clearing up any confusion about whether it’s COVID or allergies is simple: get tested. Even though the virus is constantly mutating, even home COVID tests will still generally work. This is because they are designed to capture a wide variety of mutations in the N protein, which differs from the spike protein, the part of the virus used to enter our cells.
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon The Vulgar Scientist’s weekly newsletter.
Arcturus first appeared in India, but as it crosses North America it seems to show feverish symptoms more frequently and mimic allergies, especially conjunctivitis. Often called pink eye, it is a reddish-pink inflammation or infection of the transparent membrane (conjunctiva) that lines your eyelid and covers the white part of your eyeball. It can be itchy and be caused by bacteria, allergens or viruses. COVID-related conjunctivitis is apparently more common in children, but so far much of this data is anecdotal.
In late April, the American Academy of Ophthalmology released a report that eye symptoms alone are unlikely to be a sign of COVID infection. But if your child has been exposed to the virus or has other symptoms, such as fever, body aches, cough or prototypical loss of taste or smell, it is recommended that they be tested.
Vaccines are still doing a decent job of preventing serious illness and death from these emerging strains of COVID, but their ability to protect against infection is diminishing. Federal health agencies recently approved a second bivalent booster for people with compromised immune systems or those over age 65.