The novel coronavirus COVID-19 has mutated multiple times ever since the pandemic began with some strains being more infectious and deadlier than others.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified four of those mutations as variants of concern: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. Four others – Eta, Iota, Kappa and Lambda – have been designated as ‘variants of interest’. The Lambda strain, first detected in Peru, has caught the attention of various experts due to its rapid spread in recent weeks.
Lambda is currently the dominant variant in Peru, which has the highest per capita coronavirus death rate in the world. It has also spread to at least 28 other countries including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and the United Kingdom.
Where was it first detected?
The Lambda variant was first detected in Peru last December. It is a variation of the novel coronavirus that was first recorded in the country in August 2020.
The exact origins of the Lambda variant remain unclear but scientists say it first emerged in South America. Over the last three months, Lambda has grown to represent 80 percent of all cases in Peru.
The Lambda strain did not initially cause alarm because new strains are common in places with high infection rates. Latin America and the Caribbean, while home to eight percent of the global population, account for 20 percent of the world’s COVID cases.
By May, Chile and Peru requested the WHO to consider the variant and to add it to the list of variants of interest. In mid-June, the WHO accepted and labelled it as Lambda.
Where has it spread?
The Lambda strain has already reached 28 countries. That includes Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, Aruba, Belgium, France, Portugal and the United States.
This is according to data from the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID), a platform onto which countries upload their COVID-19 viral sequences.
What are the strain’s characteristics?
Recent research on the Lambda strain has registered several mutations in its spike protein, the part of the virus that makes contact with human cells, binds to them and then infects them.
A study released in July by New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine said the mutation observed in the spike protein might be the reason for its “increased transmissibility… and it could provide a reduction of protection by current vaccines”,
According to a virologist at the University of Chile’s Institute of Biomedical Sciences, one of the mutations labelled as L452Q was similar to a mutation also shown in the Delta variant that has contributed to that strain’s high rate of infection.
Are vaccines effective?
The preliminary studies have assessed the effect of the Chinese-developed CoronaVac vaccine on the Lambda strain. The results showed that Lambda was able to neutralise the antibodies generated by the vaccine.
The vaccine efficacy can be measured by the immunisation response, but also by the responses of T-cells, which stimulate antibody production and help combat the virus-infected cells.
Should we be concerned?
At the beginning, it was considered that Lambda could become more transmissible than Delta, but experts say we should not yet be concerned. Peru’s research capacity to measure the effect of Lambda is limited which makes it harder to evaluate the variant’s spread.
The Gamma variant showed up in Brazil and expanded throughout the region, and has been considered a variant of concern. Lambda shares many of the characteristics of Gamma, and it has also spread in other countries. Unlike Peru, Brazil leads in research capacity and there is more information about the Gamma variant.