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Most of the time these mutations don’t do anything special. In fact, there are more than a dozen COVID-19 variants that the WHO is watching right now, including eta, iota and kappa. So far, none have proved to be any more of a threat than the original variant.
What’s the lambda variant?
- The lambda variant is a variant of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, which we know as the coronavirus or COVID-19.
- These variants naturally come about as the virus spreads. Experts say that new variants appear each day, but they aren’t really a problem unless the new variants give the virus some sort of advantage (which is a disadvantage for those of us fighting it).
- It was first discovered in Peru in late 2020, and experts think that it now represents more than 90% of the new COVID-19 cases in the country.
- Since then, it’s also been found in 29 countries globally, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, France, Spain and Japan.
- It’s now been put on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of “Variants of Interest,” which is one step down from its list of “Variants of Concern.”
How do these variants come about?
- To understand this, you first have to understand a concept called natural selection, or more commonly known as, “survival of the fittest.”
- A famous example of this took place in England in the 1800s, around the time of the industrial revolution. Scientists began noticing that peppered moths with darker complexions became more common than lighter ones of the same species.
- Eventually, they realized that what started as a genetic mutation – moths with much darker wings – eventually became more common because predators couldn’t see them as clearly in the trees that were now covered in soot from the new factories in the area.
- The lighter ones died off, but the darker ones stuck around because they had the evolutionary advantage. And, it’s a similar story with viruses.
- As they reproduce, viruses have a chance to mutate, giving them features that are different from the original virus so they can survive. This is completely natural, and it’s why, for example, we need a different flu shot each year.
- Most of the time these mutations don’t do anything special. In fact, there are more than a dozen COVID-19 variants that the WHO is watching right now, including eta, iota and kappa. So far, none have proved to be any more of a threat than the original variant.
- But sometimes, like we’re seeing with the lambda and the delta variants, the viruses mutate and have features that help them spread more efficiently, eventually knocking out the original because the mutations are superior.
What’s different about the lambda variant?
- It’s too early to say anything with 100% certainty, but there are a few things scientists are making educated guesses about.
- According to Dr. Preeti Malani, the chief health officer at the University of Michigan’s division of infectious diseases, “So far, it seems that Lambda is more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
- This is similar to the delta variant and explains why the two strains have spread so rapidly.
- In the US, the delta variant now represents 83% of sequenced samples, while the lambda variant seems to have taken hold in South America, representing the vast majority of cases in some countries.
- But, experts also don’t see the lambda variant as something that could overtake delta in countries where the delta is in control.
- “They both have advantages in terms of transmissibility,” said Dr. Anna Durbin, an International Health professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I don’t think that the lambda variant could out compete the delta variant.”
Are any of the variants similar?
- Well, there’s one big similarity between the lambda variant to the original strain of COVID-19, and it’s one that scientists are pretty happy about.
- Though research is still in the preliminary stages, scientists say it appears that the existing vaccines, especially two-shot versions like the ones made by Pfizer Inc. or Moderna Inc., do still provide a layer of protection against the lambda variant.
- With that said, one study conducted in July has found evidence that people who got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine might need a booster shot to better protect them from new variants, including lambda.
- But, scientists have made it clear that nothing is definitive yet. “There needs to be extensive genomic surveillance studies that are done to assess how the vaccines’ efficacy is affected by the Lambda variant,” wrote public health researcher Dr. Ravina Kullar in a CNN interview.
- More research is still needed for anyone to accurately say if the lambda variant should be a bigger concern to people than variants like delta.
- But, the bigger concern for some at the moment is the possibility that, as the virus spreads through unvaccinated populations, a new variant could emerge that is resistant to the vaccines we have.
- “We will continue to develop more and more variants,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, a professor of medicine and director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group to CNN. He continued, “eventually, one or more of these variants will learn how to evade vaccine-induced immunity. And if that’s true, we start all over again.”
- And, according to Dr. Kullar, the best way to prevent variants from being produced is to get vaccinated, avoid international travel and follow preventive measures, like wearing masks or maintaining social distancing.
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