Delta is surging, but is another variant on the way? Here’s what to know about lambda

Ben Sessoms, The Charlotte Observer  

The delta variant is by far the dominant strain of the coronavirus in North Carolina and the rest of the country, but experts say there are also other variants to watch.

Before delta, there was alpha, beta and gamma.

Now there is another, lambda, which is primarily spreading in South America.

Some cases of lambda were found at a Houston hospital last month, according to KHOU11.

Other cases were found in Dallas earlier this week, according to The Dallas Morning News.

But is it spreading in North Carolina? And does the vaccine protect against it?

Here is what you need to know about the lambda variant.

What is lambda?

The lambda variant, or C.37, is a mutation of the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

It first emerged in Peru back in December. Since then, over 1,200 cases of it have been found there. In Chile, over 1,400 have been reported.

The World Health Organization recognizes it as a variant of interest, meaning that it’s capable of causing significant community transmission.

It’s a step below a variant of concern which includes alpha, beta, gamma and delta, which have been shown to increase transmissibility and have had a significant effect on public health, according to WHO.

Is it spreading in NC?

Among all the sequenced coronavirus samples nationwide, only 810 have been found to be lambda.

By comparison, over 86,000 have been found to be delta.

Due to testing limitations, only a fraction of viruses are sequenced, but officials are still confident they’re an accurate overall representation of variants among infections, The News & Observer previously reported.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t list lambda as a variant of concern in North Carolina.

Is it vaccine resistant?

Dr. David Wohl, infectious disease specialist at the UNC-Chapel Hill, said the lambda variant is potentially concerning because in theory, the COVID-19 vaccines are not as effective against it.

“There’s indications that the antibodies from people who’ve been vaccinated do not neutralize lambda as well as they neutralize other variants,” Wohl said. “That’s the concern with lambda is that in laboratory tests, there may be diminished activity. It still works but not as avidly.”

But some lab tests also show diminished vaccine effectiveness with delta, he said, yet in people, where delta is spreading much more rapidly than lambda, it’s a different story.

“If [the vaccine] didn’t work against delta, we would have our hospital and ICU filled with people who got Moderna, Pfizer and J&J,” Wohl said. “And we’re not seeing that.”

According to state officials, over 90% of people hospitalized with COVID-19, and almost all ICU patients, are unvaccinated.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said at a press conference Wednesday that those who are unvaccinated are four times more likely to get COVID.

“We know that the vaccine works against all these variants. It does. It’s all relative, though,” Wohl said. “Compared to other variants we’re seeing in some of these lab tests, there are some concerns that maybe the antibodies produced by the vaccine aren’t as good against some of these newer variants.”

How does lambda compare to delta?

Cohen said at a press conference late last month that delta is three times as contagious as the original strain.

Wohl said data is limited

but given how much delta has spread in the past month, he’s not sure if lambda is as transmissible right now.

“In order for lambda to become the predominant virus, it has to outpace delta. It has to have some advantage over delta,” he explained. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to continue to spread because there’s no niche for it.”

“I think we would have seen lambda spread already, if it really was able to be fitter than delta,” he said.

Is a vaccine resistant variant coming?

Given that so many remain unvaccinated, there hasn’t been an evolutionary need for a variant to evolve that’s able to cause severe illness in those vaccinated, Wohl said.

“You really need a pressure to be applied to a virus in order to see it mutate,” he said.

The delta variant is spreading because of low vaccination rates and because it can infect vaccinated people, though a vast majority of cases are mild.

“Right now in our country, given how many people are unvaccinated, there’s a little bit less pressure actually on the virus to become resistant to the vaccines because there’s plenty of easy pickings of people who are not vaccinated,” Wohl explained.

“Maybe that’s kind of a silver lining. That it prevents us from getting infected — and this is all theoretical — with a variant that could be worse,” he said.

Still, Wohl urged the unvaccinated to get their shots because the vaccine protects against severe disease and death.

And even in countries with higher vaccination rates, vaccinations are still working and vaccine-resistant variants are not emerging, he said.

If a vaccine-resistant variant does emerge, Wohl said the mRNA technology in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can be adjusted quickly to compensate for such a mutation in the virus.

“I don’t think we’re going to see a truly vaccine-resistant variant for a long time, and by that time, I think we’re going to be better prepared,” Wohl said.

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