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Pre-print studies suggest that the Lambda variant may be able to neutralize antibodies in both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.
The variant is predominantly spreading through Peru and other South and Latin American nations, but health officials have reported at least 900 COVID-19 cases in the U.S. stemming from Lambda variant infections.
Despite its mutation, the Lambda variant isn't expected to render current COVID-19 vaccines entirely useless, and experts stress that vaccines are still our most powerful layer of protection.
While health officials are busy dealing with a rapid increase in new COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant here in the United States, there's rising concern among medical experts concerning a new strain known as the Lambda variant. Researchers are just now starting to learn more about the SARS-CoV-2 mutation (a virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis) which has spread rapidly throughout a string of nations primarily in South America, proving to be highly infectious in many regards.
The Lambda variant has also landed here in the U.S., with officials at Houston Methodist reporting its first Lambda COVID-19 infection in the United States in late July. Originally identified by World Health Organization (WHO) officials last December, Lambda was recently classified as a variant of "interest" and not "concern" by WHO officers — but there may already be well over 900 domestic cases of COVID-19 that can be attributed to the Lambda variant, per data provided by the GISAID Initiative. Currently, officers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) aren't displaying any information on the transmission of the Lambda variant yet.
One of the first pieces of evidence that experts are examining on the Lambda variant has to do with how it interacts with vaccines. According to a new preprint study released in Japan, researchers have found that the Lambda variant may be able to more effectively bypass and neutralize COVID-19 antibodies. Because of the Lambda variant's unique 'spike' protein structure, which is vastly different from earlier versions of the virus, the virus is proving to challenge any earned immunity in those who were already sick — as well as impact vaccinated individuals.
Similar findings were shared by a separate team of researchers in Chile, whose research aims to push health officials to consider tracking further changes in the strain "to determine the impact of these mutations" to COVID-19 vaccines currently at play. This study, however, has yet to be peer-reviewed and formally published — similar to the research out of Japan.
Resistance to antibodies is a characteristic that is also shared by the Delta variant, but researchers on both studies didn't indicate whether the Lambda variant was more infectious than Delta. Researchers are also unsure of how exactly the Lambda variant mutated in the first place, and the full extent of its virological abilities.
What we know about the Lambda variant so far:
There's been more focus on how the Delta variant has propelled new COVID-19 cases across the U.S., but medical experts are taking heed of Lambda after it became a dominant variant across Latin and South America, according to Thomas Kenyon, M.D., MPH, a former CDC Director of Global Health and the Chief Health Officer at Project HOPE, a global health relief organization. It is likely much more transmissible than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, per international medical consensus spotlighted in this Reuters report.
"Lack of vaccination allows COVID-19 to spread and mutate, which creates new variants like Lambda," Dr. Kenyon tells Good Housekeeping. "Studies are ongoing, but early evidence suggests that Lambda may be more infectious and may even escape some of the immunity we gain through vaccination."
Another pre-print lab study headed up by researchers at New York University suggested that those who received a booster dose after electing to get a single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine enjoyed increased protection against variants, including Lambda. But the July report has yet to be peer-reviewed and relied heavily on data sourced from a laboratory setting versus real-world cases.
Dr. Kenyon explains that in Peru, where Lambda has propelled many new cases of COVID-19 and was first discovered in August 2020, the strain is responsible for up to 80% of new infections currently. Per National Geographic, the strain has proved difficult to contain in a myriad of other neighboring countries in the region and can be found in 29 different nations to date.
How to protect yourself against the Lambda COVID-19 variant:
Established research on the Lambda variant is largely lacking at this point, and both studies we've recapped above have yet to be peer-reviewed. It's important to note that despite early findings suggesting the Lambda variant's significant immunity resistance, U.S. health officials have yet to classify the strain as a serious risk at this stage of the pandemic — and both CDC and WHO officials haven't designate Lambda as concerning or urgent as Delta, Gamma, and two other older variations of the virus. Plus, there's burgeoning evidence that the Lambda variant isn't as aggressive on vaccines made elsewhere in the world, including in larger areas in Asia, as reported by the Global Times.
The bottom line: Fighting the spread of the Lambda variant will require you to keep practicing COVID-19 protective measures you've been familiar with all year.
Dr. Kenyon says vaccinated individuals shouldn't worry about severe infection from any variant just yet, as a reported 99% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated during the month of July, if not more, per the Associated Press.
"We know COVID-19 vaccines are very protective and they should be considered the first and most powerful layer," he adds. "It’s also the unvaccinated who are most responsible for spreading the virus to others, even when they have no or mild symptoms, [like] in children or in the vaccinated when they have a rare breakthrough infection."
Since the Delta variant is currently the most viral strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the U.S., take heed in how current vaccines protect against that particular variant — experts at the Mayo Clinic highlight that all vaccines are more than 80% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 cases at various rates. Those figures should encourage you to seek out a vaccine now if you have yet to do so.
As more information about the coronavirus pandemic develops, some of the information in this story may have changed since it was last updated. For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department.
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