What is the Lambda COVID variant and is it in the UK?

·3-min read
Photo credit: Solskin - Getty Images
Photo credit: Solskin - Getty Images

The Lambda variant is the latest strain of COVID-19 that's been making headlines across the world recently. As of mid-July, there have been eight confirmed cases of the Lambda variant in the UK, all located in England. According to a Public Health England spokesperson, those infected had travelled back to the UK from overseas.

At this point in time, the Delta variant is most prominent in the UK, accounting for 99% of cases. It's more transmissible that the Kent (or Alpha) variant - the strain that previously dominated the UK at the end of 2020 and the start of 2021.

Despite new mutations of COVID, the UK's vaccine rollout proved widely successful against the variants, and has significantly cut the link between infections, hospitalisations and deaths. According to data from Public Health England, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 96% effective against hospitalisation for the Delta variant after two doses, while two doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is 92% effective against hospitalisation.

Now the Lambda variant is gaining the attention of scientists in the UK, here's what you need to know about the new strain...

What is the Lambda variant?

The strain was first detected in Peru last summer and now accounts for 71% of all COVID-19 cases in Peru from January to June 2021. Chile, Argentina and Ecuador have also seen a significant numbers of infections, leading the World Health Organisation (WHO) to name it a “variant of interest”.

At least 29 countries including the UK have reported mostly small numbers of the Lambda variant, also known as C.37, in recent months. One of the countries the strain has reached is America, yet overall in the US, cases are very low, with only 700 having been identified so far.

Is the Lambda variant more transmissible?

Preliminary data on the Lambda spike protein suggests it has increased infectivity, which means it can infect cells more easily than the original virus, the Kent (or Alpha) and Gamma variants.

However the World Health Organisation maintains the Lambda strain is less severe than Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants – all variants which are called 'variants of concern' as they spread faster, are more resistant to vaccines and are more likely to make people severely ill.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Do vaccines work against the Lambda variant?

Two vaccines – Pfizer and Moderna – have been shown in a recent New York University study, to work against the Lambda variant. In the study, which has not been peer reviewed, the variant showed a slight resistance to the two mRNA vaccines, but the shots were still highly effective. “The vaccines induce such good antibodies that even if the virus is a little bit resistant, they are still quite sufficient to kill the virus,” Nathaniel Landau, one of the NYU researchers, said.

The Johnson&Johnson vaccine was not as defensive against the variant, yet it does still provides some benefits, such as the body's ability to fight T-Cells. “There’s no reason to think that the T-Cell response isn’t as good,” he said. “It would still be there to block variant viruses."

Is the Lambda variant in the UK?

In the UK, the Delta variant continues to be the more prominent strain of COVID, according to a report by Public Health England, but scientists and health experts are now working to understand the Lambda variant better and there are a few known cases already reported.

Photo credit: Paul Biris - Getty Images
Photo credit: Paul Biris - Getty Images

“There is currently limited evidence available about [the Lambda] variant,” Dr Alicia Demirjian, COVID Incident Director at Public Health England (PHE), told BBC Science Focus magazine.

“PHE, together with academic partners, is undertaking investigations to better understand the impact of the mutations on the behaviour of the virus. We are closely monitoring the situation in those countries where this variant is prevalent and where cases are detected in the UK, we are testing contacts and will undertake targeted case finding if required.”

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