A Houston hospital has its first case of the lambda variant of the coronavirus, but public health experts say it is still too early to say if the variant will reach the same level of concern as the delta variant which is currently raging in communities. unvaccinated in the United States
About 83% of COVID-19 cases in the United States are from the delta variant and the vast majority of hospitalizations are unvaccinated people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The lambda variant, on the other hand, has been identified in fewer than 700 cases in the United States. However, the World Health Organization in June called lambda a “variant of interest”, which means that it has genetic changes that affect the characteristics of the virus and has caused significant community spread or clusters of COVID. -19 in several countries.
Dr S. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic biology at Houston Methodist, where the case was identified, said that although lambda has similar mutations to other variants that have raised concerns, it does not appear to be as transmissible as delta. .
“I know there is a lot of interest in the lambda, but I think people really need to focus on the delta,” Long said. “More importantly, regardless of the variant, our best defense against all of these variants is vaccination.
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What is the lambda variant and how is it different from the delta variant?
The lambda variant is a specific strain of COVID-19 with specific mutations. This is one of the few variants identified by the WHO as being of concern or of interest. Many other variants have emerged since the outbreak was first detected in late 2019 in central China.
“The natural trajectory of viruses is that they tend to have mutations, and every time we have a significant mutation that changes the virus … we get a new variant,” said Dr Abhijit Duggal, ICU doctor. and director of intensive care. research for the medical intensive care unit at the Cleveland Clinic.
Some of the lambda mutations occur in its spike protein, which is the part of the virus that helps it enter cells in the human body and is also targeted by vaccines.
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The mutations that occur there and in other parts of the lambda are similar to those of the worrisome variants, like alpha and gamma, Long said. But even gamma, which has never reached the same level in the United States as alpha or delta, has mutations of more concern than lambda, Long said.
Duggal said there was nothing specific with the lambda variant to cause concern that it would become the dominant variant in the United States, but “watchful waiting and caution will be the most important thing to do. this stage “.
Where was the lambda variant first identified?
The lambda variant was first identified in Peru in December 2020. As of April, more than 80% of cases sequenced in the country have been identified as the lambda variant.
In June, the WHO said it had identified the lambda variant in 29 countries. Argentina and Chile have also seen an increase in lambda cases, the WHO said.
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However, the variant did not spread to nearly the same level globally as the Delta variant. Lambda may have become so prevalent in parts of South America largely because of a “founder effect,” Long said, in which a few cases of the variant first settled in one area. densely populated and geographically restricted and have slowly become the main driver of the spread. locally over time.
Long compared lambda to the gamma variant, which was first detected in Brazil and has spread in a similar fashion
Are COVID-19 vaccines effective against the lambda variant?
Studies have suggested that vaccines currently licensed for use in the United States are very effective in preventing severe COVID-19 and death in several variants.
Duggal said there was no reason to believe the vaccines would be ineffective against the lambda variant, but more data is needed to know exactly how effective it will be. Efficacy may reduce some, but hospitalization can still be largely preventable in cases variant with vaccination, he said.
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However, a new study published online Tuesday found that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was not as effective in preventing symptomatic illnesses in the face of delta and lambda variants. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a journal, but it aligns with studies of the AstraZeneca vaccine which conclude that one dose of the vaccine is 33% effective against symptomatic disease of the variant. delta.
The vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have been shown to retain similar levels of efficacy against several of the variants of concern.
Getting the vaccine remains the single most important factor in stopping the deadly effects of the virus and slowing the new variants, Long said.
Mutations occur in the coronavirus as it spreads from person to person. Vaccination can help prevent symptomatic disease and reduce the spread in communities with high vaccination rates, which can then prevent mutations and new variants from appearing, Duggal added.