Story at a glance
- The lambda variant was identified as a COVID-19 mutation that could potentially be vaccine resistant, similar to the delta variant.
- Rachel Graham, an assistant professor in epidemiology, says that its mutation likely causes it to be a more transmissible strain.
- The lambda variant comprises just a few hundred cases in the U.S., but this could change
While the U.S. continues to reckon with the delta variant’s rampant spread, headlines have pivoted to another variant that is quickly growing into a dominant strain: lambda.
First reported in Peru during late 2020, the lambda variant, dubbed C.37, is a viable candidate for the most prominent strain in South America — driving infections in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay. Further genome sequencing data indicates that the lambda is mutating at a rapid rate in cases across the world.
In light of these figures, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified the lambda as a variant of interest. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has yet to take similar steps, despite cases emerging in states like Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland.
This leaves Americans to wonder just how transmissible the lambda variant is and if it poses the same insidious threat as the delta variant.
“From what we can see in South America right now, it does appear to be more transmissible than what you would call the grandparent strains of the original coronavirus,” said Rachel Graham, an assistant professor in the epidemiology department at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
While it hasn’t seized a major foothold in the U.S., the lambda variant stands to become the dominant strain the same way the delta variant has.
“If this particular variant has the ability to circumvent immunity in previously infected patients the way that delta seems to be able to do...we could see another wave in, say, six months time that is predominantly lambda or something that is related to lambda,” she said.
Graham told The Hill that similar to the delta variant, the lambda variant’s mutation occurs within the spike protein of the coronavirus cell, or the part of the cell that attaches to the host cell and enables the virus to replicate. Changes to this part of the cell affect the virus’ transmissibility, or how contagious it can be, as well as human immune responses.
Preliminary data published in July suggested that the lambda variant may be resistant against the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use. This research has yet to be paper reviewed, but Graham cautioned that any resistance may be minor in nature.
“It does have an effect against neutralizing antibodies that are produced from that vaccine,” she said. “The important thing to take away from that, though, while there is an effect, you’re talking about taking something that was a huge response into something that was a slightly less huge response.”
Until more research on the lambda comes along, it remains to be seen whether the strain will actually cause a difference in any given patient response to the vaccine.
The best bet for preventing an infection and the further spread of the lambda, however, is vaccination.
Variants like the lambda and delta occur with more mutations, which stem from more infections. Denying the virus the opportunity to infect a host will make it harder for the coronavirus to continue mutating.
“It’s that sheer number of replication events that can produce more mutations,” Graham confirmed.
Replication of the virus tends to occur when people congregate and are unmasked and unvaccinated.
“Right now vaccination is the primary way to stop the spread of the virus,” she said.