Covid: What is the Lambda variant and where has it been found?

Covid: What is the Lambda variant and where has it been found?
Experts say it is far less of a threat to the US than the Delta variant

The Lambda coronavirus variant has been hitting headlines since it was discovered this week at a Houston hospital.

But while it swept through several South American countries earlier this year, it has not spread rapidly in the US; there have been fewer than 700 cases identified across the country so far, reported The Washington Post

Compared to the Delta variant, which has surged among unvaccinated people and caused hospitalisations to spike for the first time in months, experts said they were confident the Lambda variant didn’t pose a major threat to the United States.

“It is not anywhere near as concerning as the delta variant,” said S Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist Hospital, which on Monday reported its first case of the lambda variant. “That’s the engine that’s going to be driving the surge in the US.”

The Lambda variant was first detected in Peru last summer, and spread fast there, now accounting for the vast majority of the country’s new Covid cases. Chile, Argentina and Ecuador also saw significant numbers of infections, which led the World Health Organisation to add the variant to its watch list in June, and to designate it a “variant of interest”.

According to scientists, Lambda has some of the same types of mutations observed in other variants that may increase transmission, and it may more easily infect lung cells.

But the WHO designation is less severe than “variant of concern”, which includes the Alpha, bBeta, Gamma and Delta variants – those that have been proven to spread faster, make people more ill, or evade vaccines or treatments.

A recent study by microbiologists at New York University showed that two of the three federally approved coronavirus vaccines – Pfizer and Moderna – appeared to work well against the Lambda variant, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, on the other hand, didn’t offer the same level of defence. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Experts emphasised that the Lambda variant was just one among many, and stressed that vaccines were the most important tool for combating the coronavirus pandemic, regardless of the variant.

Dr Long told The Washington Post that the choice was simple: either get vaccinated or, eventually, get infected.

“No matter what Greek letter comes along next, the vaccine is really our best defence,” Dr Long said. “If anybody thinks they can hunker down and never get the virus, I think that’s a fantasy.”