Alpha, Beta, Delta—until 2019, most Indians used these Greek letters primarily while studying physics and mathematics. But ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, these letters have formed newer, much darker associations, as they have been used to name the emerging variants of the novel coronavirus.
Now, as countries strive to maintain their vaccination pace in the hopes of beating the virus, one such letter may dominate the conversations surrounding COVID-19 in the months to come.
Following a series of laboratory experiments, scientists have encountered a coronavirus variant that may be resistant to COVID-19 vaccines; its name: Lambda.
First detected in Peru back in August 2020, Lambda was termed as ‘unusual’ long ago due to several unique mutations. As per the WHO, this ‘variant of interest’ has been the COVID-19 carrier in about 81% of the infections (since April 2021) across the Latin American country, which has the highest COVID-19 death rate of any nation in the world!
Lambda’s increased transmissibility has already been established, as this variant showcases greater infectivity than Alpha, Delta and Gamma variants. Initial studies had also hinted that the variant may hold the potential to evade antibodies generated via natural infection or vaccination, and this fear has now turned into reality.
A preprint study conducted by researchers in Chile has found that the mutations present in Lambda’s spike protein—an essential component that initiates the virus’ entry into the human cells and triggers infection—boost its ability to infect as well as escape the neutralising antibodies elicited by CoronaVac.
CoronaVac, an inactivated virus COVID-19 vaccine developed by the Chinese company Sinovac Biotech that’s widely used in Peru, was found to be 66% effective against symptomatic COVID-19, 88% against hospitalisation, 90% against ICU admissions, and 86% against deaths.
Three mutations in the spike protein, viz. RSYLTPGD246-253N, 260 L452Q, and F490S help Lambda resist antibody neutralisation, while two additional mutations, T76I and L452Q, make it highly infectious, the researchers found.
These findings are in line with the grave predictions recently made by British academics, whose analysis had warned that it is “almost certain” that a coronavirus variant will emerge that “leads to current vaccine failure”.
As of early July 2021, the Lambda variant was detected in 30 countries around the world. It is dominant in Peru, widespread across Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico, and has also reached as far as the UK. However, no cases of the Lambda variant have been detected in India so far.
While it may be too early to sound the alarm bells, the study authors have urged all countries to carry out strict genomic surveillance along with their mass vaccination campaigns. This would make it easier to spot new isolates carrying spike mutations and conduct immunology studies to determine if these mutations can escape vaccine-induced immunity.
Furthermore, experts have also underlined the importance of mask usage, travel restrictions, and quarantining in order to slow the spread and mutation of coronavirus.
The study is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. Its findings are available on the pre-print server medrxiv, and can be assessed here.
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