What You Should Know: Coronavirus Rehabilitation: NPR

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What You Should Know: Coronavirus Rehabilitation: NPR

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Mario Tama/Getty Images

Mario Tama/Getty Images

A medical assistant administers a COVID-19 test last week in Los Angeles. COVID-19 cases are on the rise as the highly transmissible delta variant has become the dominant strain in the United States.

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While the delta variant of the coronavirus has quickly become the dominant strain in the United States, it’s not the only variant circulating in the population.

The lambda variant, first identified in Peru, is also making headlines as it has started to be identified in several states. Houston Methodist Hospital reported its first case of the variant this week. Scientists at the Medical University of South Carolina recently announced they had found the variant in a virus sample taken in April.

According to a database for scientists tracking COVID-19 variants, fewer than 700 cases of the lambda variant have been sequenced in the U.S. so far out of more than 34 million total cases reported to date. But the U.S. has sequenced only a tiny fraction of its cases, so that number does not reflect the actual number of lambda cases in the country. Less than 1% of U.S. cases in the last four weeks have been identified as the lambda variant, according to GISAID, a repository for genome data.

So do we need to add lambda to our list of big worries in the U.S.? Not yet, according to public health officials and experts. The delta variant, which is more than two times as transmissible as the original strain of the coronavirus, now accounts for 83% of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. Delta continues to be the central concern for public health officials.

What we know about the lambda variant The lambda variant was first identified in Peru in August 2020, according to the World Health Organization. Cases with the variant have now been identified in 28 countries, according to GISAID — though many of those have identified only a handful of lambda cases.

Lambda spread until it became a dominant sequence in people with COVID-19 in Peru. The WHO noted last month an elevated presence of lambda in other South American countries, including Argentina, Chile and Ecuador. And now we know it’s present in the U.S. The lambda variant carries a number of mutations with suspected implications, such as a potential increased transmissibility or possible increased resistance to neutralizing antibodies, the WHO says. But it says the full extent of those mutations’ impact isn’t yet well understood, and will need further study.

He tells NPR that lambda is “sort of a cousin of the alpha variant” — one of the earliest identified variants of concern. Dr. Stuart Ray is a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins hospital, where he specializes in infectious diseases. Ray opened one of the first COVID-19 wards at Johns Hopkins in March 2020, and he has also overseen Johns Hopkins’s COVID-19 sequencing efforts.