Researchers at Japan’s University of Tokyo have warned that the Lambda variant of COVID-19 may be more resistant to vaccines and highly infectious, according to a new scientific paper published on July 28.
What is Lambda COVID variant?
Lambda, which is also known as the C.37 variant, is responsible for 1,037 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., according to data from the GISAID Initiative.
The variant was first identified in Peru in August, 2020, where it has now become the dominant strain of the virus, and it has been reported in 29 countries including the U.S.
Lambda, like the Delta variant, is highly transmissible, but three mutations in the variant’s spike proteins, according to Japanese researchers, make it more resistant to antibodies induced by vaccination.
Researchers at the University of Tokyo published their paper at bioRxiv, a “preprint server for biology,” last Wednesday ahead of the paper’s peer review.
Can Lambda variant evade vaccines?
In lab experiments, they identified three mutations in the Lambda variant’s spike protein – called RSYLTPGD246-253N, 260 L452Q and F490S. They make it more resistant to neutralization by antibodies that are induced through vaccination. This makes the strain more resistant to vaccines than the original COVID-19 strain first identified in Wuhan, China.
The researchers also discovered two additional mutations, T76I and L452Q, that make the Lambda variant highly infectious.
The researchers write: “Because the Lambda variant is relatively resistant to the vaccine-induced antisera, it might be possible that this variant is feasible to cause breakthrough infection,” the paper says.
“Vaccine-induced antisera” refers to the antibodies that arise from vaccination.
So, all at once, the variant can spread fast and evade vaccines, according to the researchers, who worked in a lab in Japan.
Is Lambda a serious variant?
They also warn that the World Health Organization’s classification of Lambda as a Variant of Interest (VOI) rather than a Variant of Concern (VOC) might lead some people to take the threat less seriously.
The researchers write: “Because the Lambda variant is a VOI, it might be considered that this variant is not an ongoing threat compared to the pandemic VOCs.”
How dangerous is the Lambda variant?
Per Reuters, it’s unclear if the lambda variant is more dangerous than the delta variant right now. But senior researcher Kei Sato, of the University of Tokyo, told Reuters that we should be concerned about the variant.
“Lambda can be a potential threat to the human society,” he said.
Dr. S. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic biology at Houston Methodist, told USA Today that the lambda variant might not be as concerning at the delta variant.
“I know there’s great interest in lambda, but I think people really need to be focused on delta,” Long said.
Dr. Pablo Tsukayama, a molecular microbiologist at Cayetano Heredia University in Lima (Peru) told Al Jazeera on July 27: “When we found it, it did not attract much attention.”
“But we continued processing samples, and by March, it was in 50 percent of the samples in Lima. By April, it was in 80 percent of the samples in Peru,” he said.
“That jump from one to 50 percent is an early indicator of a more transmissible variant,” Tsukayama added.