The lambda variant is the terror of South America, why can’t it get a foothold here?

Once again, a new virus variant is causing a stir – albeit on the other side of the globe, in South America. What is wrong with the ‘lambda variety’, which now causes almost all infections in Peru?

‘Mysterious’, ‘eclectic’, ‘unusual’. The trade journals and specialist sites are short of words to describe the new offshoot of the coronavirus boom. Because the ‘lambda variant’ – named after the eleventh letter of the Greek alphabet – may still be relatively unknown in Europe, but among scientists who follow the progress of the corona virus, it is one of the most talked-about virus variants of the moment.

For example, the World Health Organization decided last month to declare the variant a ‘variant of care’ and lambda has recently appeared in the US and Australia, among others. But especially in South America, the variant is more or less the engine behind the second wave. In Peru, the variant is behind almost all infections, in Chile and Argentina one in three infections is of the lambda type.

If it isn’t anymore. The variant, which was first noticed at the end of 2020, is very similar to the P1 variant from Brazil. Simple tests therefore cannot properly ‘distinguish’ him. Moreover, countries such as Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay have not already dissected the world champion virus: who knows where else the variant hangs out.

Seen from a distance, the lambda variant is a sort of compilation album, ‘the greatest hits of the virus variants’. Because the mutation at place number 452 in the construction plan of its protrusions, virologists are already familiar with from, among other things, the ‘epsilon variant’, from California. And the changes in the so-called ‘ORF gene’ of the virus, experts have already found in the alpha, beta and gamma variant.

Strategic places

Together, however, all those viral classics – plus some new work – form a unique collection, which apparently helps the lambda variant move forward, notes a British-Peruvian team that analyzed the virus in detail. The changes are often in important strategic places, and that will certainly not be a coincidence. For example, the lambda variant lacks seven building blocks in a place where antibodies like to attach, and there are two mutations in the ‘binding domain’ of its projections, the place where the virus chemically attaches itself to human cells. It is quite plausible that these adjustments make the virus more elusive for antibodies, and more contagious for humans.

So there is every reason to worry, you might say. Until you look at the matter from afar. For example, there is still no good evidence that the virus is actually more contagious in the real world – so far all the evidence comes from laboratory studies and genetic analysis.

The lambda variant appeared in our country two months ago, according to counts by the RIVM. After that, however, it was hardly seen in the test streets: an indication that the variant is not immediately taking the country by storm. Present, but stable: this is also the picture in many other European countries.

Crappy vaccination campaigns

The advance of the variant in South America could partly be related to other things. Like ramshackle vaccination campaigns, with ramshackle vaccines. In countries such as Peru, Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay, barely one in ten people has been fully vaccinated. And many countries use the Chinese vaccine CoronaVac, which, according to a recent Chilean study, protects only slightly more than half – and even 3 percent after a single shot. That gives the virus wind.

So perhaps lambda is a local South American phenomenon – the right virus in the right place, pumped up by rickety vaccination, policy errors and the absence of much faster competitors such as the delta variant that is now dominant in our country.

That is in any case also the preliminary estimate of the Australian government agency Csiro. “The lambda variant is certainly interesting, but determining whether it is a variant of concern requires more epidemiological evidence and research into its infectivity.”

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