A new variant of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has now spread to over 30 countries, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced. The so-called lambda variant has in one case been traced in Belgium.
The variant was first detected in Peru in December last year, and was named by the WHO in June, and declared a variant of interest. There are now warnings that the variant may be more resistant to existing vaccines, as well as being more infectious that the alpha (formerly known as the British or Kent variant) and gamma (Brazil) variants.
Until now, the main worry has been the delta (Indian) variant, which is thought to account for up to half of all new cases of infection in Belgium. This variant is more infectious than alpha, and both doses of vaccine are required to give adequate protection.
Lambda has already reached the stage where 80% of new infections in South America feature the strain, but now it has spread. In Germany, 99 cases have been reported; six in the UK, where currently delta is rampant, and so far one in Belgium.
In May, the WHO changed its nomenclature for new variants from country of origin to featureless Greek letters, to avoid stigmatising particular countries (scientists have their own way of naming the different variants). However the ease with which the variants spread, from Peru to Germany, means that geographical names have no sense at all.
However for Tom Wenseleers, professor of biostatistics at the university of Leuven, there is no need to panic.
“As long as a variant is not stronger than the delta, we should not really take it into account,” he said. “I’ve looked into all the variants, but none is more contagious than the delta. Delta has managed to sweep aside all other variants, and I am convinced that it will soon be responsible for half of infections worldwide.”
• Here’s a handy cheat-sheet to keep track of the eight variants that have hitherto been discovered.
Eta – discovered in several countries, December 2020 Iota – discovered in the United States, November 2020 Kappa – discovered in India, October 2020 Lambda – discovered in Peru, December 2020
Of concern: Alpha – discovered in UK, September 2020 Beta – discovered in South Africa, May 2020 Gamma – discovered in Brazil, November 2020 Delta – discovered in India, October 2020