As if it were a horror movie villain who is never going to die, the coronavirus keeps mutating in new and dangerous ways.
Lambda variant of a novel coronavirus, previously identified in Peru, has been found in Japan for the first time.
Despite little knowledge of Lambda's transmission and virulence, it needs to be given close attention.
Multiple mutations are present in Lambda. There are several mutations we've seen in other variants, but at least one is native to the variant. The spike protein has a peculiar mutation causing concern. It's called the RSYLTPGD246-253N mutation and it gives the virus an increased affinity for the ACE2 receptor, which is how it enters human cells. As a result, the virus is more infectious.
Apparently, it's this mutation that makes lambda immune to antibodies. There is no doubt that some viruses can evade certain antibodies, but it remains to be seen if any viruses can evade enough antibodies to cause breakthrough infections and severe disease in vaccinated people.
It's not clear how Lambda compares to Delta in terms of transmission, severity, and vaccine evasion - but, like Delta, Lambda appears to be more transmissible than the original (or "wild type") version of SARS-CoV-2. In addition to these two mutations, it has two more mutations with virus variants known to be more transmissible than the wild-type virus: one with Alpha, and one with Delta.
Research suggests that Lambda is more transmissible than Alpha and less transmissible than Delta. Hence, it may not spread as quickly as Delta, but it could spread more rapidly in areas where Delta is less prevalent, making outbreaks harder to contain.
Researchers from the University of Tokyo have found that Lambda may be more resistant to vaccines than the original strain. Whether each vaccine will cause a high level of resistance remains an open question.
As an example, Delta can evade some antibody protection, which can cause breakthrough infections in people who have been vaccinated, but most of those infections are mild. While we don't yet know if the same will apply to Lambda, masks and social distancing continue to reduce the risk of breakthrough infection.
The type of vaccine also matters. Sinovac/Coronavac may not be very effective at protecting against the Lambda variant, according to a pre-print study. Despite this, other variants remain immune to antibodies.
How many more variants are we looking at here? Even though it can be depressing, we just don't know, which is why we should prepare for what is yet to come, and do what we can to safeguard ourselves.