Once again, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has delayed announcing the presence of the latest Omicron variant of interest that is circulating the globe, Omicron XBB.1.16, given the name “Arcturus” by virologists. With XBB.1.5 in retreat, XBB.1.16 has rapidly gained momentum, accounting for 7.2 percent of all sequenced variants last week. However, two other new Omicron sub-lineages, XBB.1.9.1 (6.5 percent) and XBB.1.9.2 (2.5 percent), are also of concern. 

The Omicron XBB.1.16 subvariant first drew international attention in India last month. It was quickly placed on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of variants “to watch” on March 22, 2023. So far, it has been detected in at least 33 countries. However, as surveillance and sequencing are being ended, the ability of public health agencies to detect the emergence of a new variant of concern will be severely affected.

As Rajendram Rajnarayanan, PhD, an assistant dean of research and associate professor at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, recently noted, “closing up shop too early could mean we are blindsided.” He added, “You have to maintain a base level of sequencing for new variants. Right now, the variant that is ‘top dog’ in the world is XBB.1.16.”

According to the CDC’s latest “weighted estimates” of variant proportion, it appears this variant of interest had attained the 1 percent threshold for reporting as early as the week ending March 18, 2023. The CDC is required to report new variants of interest when they reach the 1 percent threshold.

Estimates of SARS-CoV-2 Omicron subvariants in the US, for 2023 [Photo: Greg Travis]

By the week ending on April 1, 2023, the proportion of XBB.1.16 variants had climbed to 2.1 percent. Yet, a review of the list of variants of interest at the time in a WSWS report published on April 3, 2023, which included an examination of the CDC’s tracker, found no mention of it by the national health agency. At the time, we wrote, “In the US, XBB.1.5 remains the dominant version, accounting for 88 percent of all sequenced variants as of the first week of April. They [the CDC] have not listed XBB.1.16…” We then noted that Arcturus had been detected in 18 states and its descendant, XBB.1.16.1, was present in 14 states.

The omission of XBB.1.16 in the CDC’s variant surveillance report is the third time this is has happened since last October, with only the WSWS exposing these blatant cover-ups. It coincides with the push by the Biden administration to shut down all official response to the pandemic and prematurely declare it over. Alongside every political maneuver by the White House and Congress regarding the pandemic, carried out to suit the needs of finance capital to shut down both mitigation measures and even elementary tracking of critical data in real time, the CDC has responded in lockstep.

As a prelude to the May 11 ending of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, President Joe Biden has signed the bipartisan-backed bill that ended the COVID National Emergency (a separate legal measure).

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