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Adam Taylor receives funding from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.
Griffith Universityith provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.
Lambda coronavirus variant was first reported in Peru in December 2020, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
A case of Lambda was included in hotel quarantine in New South Wales in April.
Lambda is now detected in more than 20 countries around the world.
In June of this year, the WHO designated it’s a “variant of interest”. This is due to mutations that are thought to affect the characteristics of the virus, such as how easily it is transmitted. While it’s not yet worrying enough for the WHO to consider it a “variant of concern” like Alpha or Delta.
Epidemiological evidence is still growing about the exact threat that Lamda poses. So, at this stage, more research is needed to say for sure how the mutations affect transmission, the ability to evade vaccine protection, and disease severity.
Preliminary evidence suggests that Lambda can infect our cells more easily and is a bit better at evading our immune system. But vaccines should still work well against it.
In addition, since many of the currently available or under development coronavirus vaccines are based on the spike protein, changes in the spike protein in new variants may affect vaccine effectiveness
Lambda contains multiple mutations to the spike protein.
One mutation (F490S) already has been associated with reduced susceptibility to antibodies generated in patients who had recovered from COVID. This means that antibodies generated by contamination with the original Wuhan strain of COVID are not as effective at neutralizing Lambda.
Another Lambda mutation (L452Q) is in the same position in the spike protein as a previously studied mutation found in the Delta variant (L452R). Not only this mutation in Delta increases the virus’ ability to infect cells, but also promotes immune system escape, meaning the antibodies that vaccines generate are less likely to recognize it.
Both mutations F490S and L452Q are in the “receptor binding domain”, the part of the spike protein that attaches to our cells.
Preliminary data on the Lambda spike protein suggests it has increased infectivity, meaning it can infect cells more easily than the original Wuhan virus and its Alpha and Gamma variants. These early studies also suggest that antibodies generated in people who received the CoronaVac vaccine (developed by Chinese biotech Sinovac) were less powerful when neutralizing the spike protein of Lambda then it was the Wuhan, Alpha or Gamma variants.
It is worth noting that contagiousness is not the same as being more contagious between people. There isn’t enough evidence yet that Lambda is definitely more contagious, but the mutations it has suggest it’s possible.
a separate one small study, which is also yet to be reviewed by the scientific community, suggests that the L452Q mutation in the Lambda spike protein is responsible for its increased ability to infect cells. Like the L452R mutation in the Delta variant, this study suggests that the L452Q mutation means Lambda can more easily bind to the “ACE2 receptor‘, which is the gateway for SARS-CoV-2 to enter our cells.
This preliminary study suggests that Lambda’s spike protein mutations reduce the ability of antibodies generated by both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines to neutralize the virus. Also a mutation was shown to resist neutralization by antibodies from antibody therapy to some extent.
However, these reductions were moderate. Also, neutralizing antibodies are only part of a protective immune response elicited by vaccination. That is why these studies to conclude currently approved vaccines and antibody therapies may still protect against diseases caused by Lambda.
A risk assessment released by Public Health England in July admits there isn’t enough information on Lambda yet to know whether infection increases the risk of serious illness.
The risk assessment also recommends implementing continuous surveillance in countries where both Lambda and Delta are present as a priority. The goal would be to find out if Lambda is capable of defeating Delta.
With continued high levels of coronavirus transmission, there is an ongoing risk of new variants arising. The Lambda variant once again highlights the risk that these mutations increase SARS-CoV-2’s ability to infect cells or interfere with existing vaccines and antibody drugs.
The WHO will continue to study Lambda to determine whether it could potentially become an emerging global public health risk and variant of concern.
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