The world of mutations

The next Covid-19 variant to watch like a hawk: the highly transmissible 'Lambda'

The Lambda variant was first detected in Peru and has raised concerns that it is resistant to vaccines

Tanya Farber Senior science reporter
Scientists are scrambling to figure out if current vaccines are effective against Lambda, which so far appears to be highly transmissible — possibly even more so than Delta. File photo.
Scientists are scrambling to figure out if current vaccines are effective against Lambda, which so far appears to be highly transmissible — possibly even more so than Delta. File photo.
Image: REUTERS/Gaelen Morse/ File photo

SA is buckling under the weight of the Delta variant that has fuelled the Covid-19 third wave, but now another variant known as Lambda — and that's possibly even more transmissible — has surfaced.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Lambda variant was first detected in Peru but quickly spread to more than 30 countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom.

The WHO has it pegged as a “variant of interest” — as opposed to a “variant of concern” — but this could change quickly as scientists are alarmed by its unusual mutations.

Prof Barry Schoub, who heads the vaccine unit of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, said on Tuesday night that Lambda “has not been detected in SA”.

According to the Financial Times, Lambda has a “unique pattern of seven mutations in the spike protein that the virus uses to infect human cells”, and that “researchers are particularly intrigued by one mutation called L452Q, which is similar to the L452R mutation believed to contribute to the high infectiousness of the Delta variant”.

Peruvian microbiologist Pablo Tsukayama told the Financial Times that in December last year it showed up in one in 200 cases in that country. By March this year, that figure was up to 50% of all cases and now it is at 80%.

Only a handful of cases of the Lambda variant have been detected in the UK so far, but in other countries where it’s been spotted, like Peru’s neighbour Chile, it has quickly risen to account for almost a third of cases.

Last month, the WHO named Lambda as number seven on the list of “variants of interest”, while Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta remain on the “variants of concern” list.

The jury is still out on whether it will make impotent some of the vaccines being administered across the globe. Researchers say its unusual set of mutations might render it capable of neutralising antibodies — but more research is needed.

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