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Scientists fear that a highly contagious new COVID-19 variant that is ravaging Peru may be resistant to vaccines.
The Lambda mutation, or C.37, appears to have emerged in Peru last August — and is now being blamed for the country having the highest pandemic death rate in the world.
The concerning strain has since spread to around 30 countries, mostly in Latin America — but also as far as the UK, which has recorded at least eight cases, according to government figures.
There are no known cases of the Lambda strain in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Peru, Lambda has accounted for 81 percent of new infections tested for variants since April, according to the World Health Organization.
The South American nation currently has by far the highest mortality rate in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
There, nearly 10 percent of those recorded as being infected end up dying — with the death rate of nearly 600 for every 100,000 citizens almost double that of the next nation, Hungary, the data shows. The US is 21st with just under 185 deaths per 100,000.
Lambda was last month declared a Variant of Interest by the World Health Organization (WHO), which noted that it was “associated with substantive rates of community transmission in multiple countries.”
“Lambda carries a number of mutations” that may have led to “potential increased transmissibility or possible increased resistance to neutralizing antibodies,” the WHO said.
Scientists in Chile — where Lambda is blamed for more than a third of the country’s infections — also warned in a recent study, published in a preprint last week, that it appears to evade vaccines better than other strains.
“Our data show for the first time that mutations present in the spike protein of the Lambda variant confer escape to neutralizing antibodies and increased infectivity,” wrote the researchers from the University of Chile in Santiago.
That could explain why it has been able to take hold despite Chile “undergoing a massive vaccination program,” the study warned.
“Considering that this variant has rapidly spread in Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina, we believe that Lambda has a considerable potential to become a variant of concern,” they concluded in the preprint paper that has yet to be peer-reviewed.
“One reason why it is hard to make sense of the threat from Lambda … is that it has rather an unusual set of mutations,” Jeff Barrett, director of the COVID-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK, told the Financial Times.
At least one of these appears to be shared with the Delta variant, making them both highly contagious, he said.
The UK has designated Lambda a “Variant Under Investigation” on June 23, after six cases were detected, all from people who had returned from travels, Public Health England (PHE) said.
The WHO, however, has stressed that “further studies are … required to validate the continued effectiveness of vaccines” with the new strain.
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