In recent news, a John Hopkins University COVID researcher described the Lambda variant as a “potential threat to human society,” and there has been widespread concern about the efficacy of vaccines against the Delta and Delta Plus variant. What do we know about these COVID-19 variants thus far?
The World Health Organization (WHO) tracks SARS-CoV-2 variants to see how the virus mutates over time and poses a threat to society. This global monitoring process aims to inform research and inform pandemic response, like the development of booster shots.
How Variants Form
When a virus is transmitted from one person to another, variants can form. A variant is a virus with one or multiple genetic mutations; as the virus spreads, more genetic mutations occur. Viruses are constantly changing and mutating, but some mutations alter characteristics of the virus that can make it more contagious or cause more severe illness.
How Variants Are Found
Variants are found by sequencing the virus collected from an infected person in a laboratory. There are different technologies used to read the genetic code of viruses to determine which variant it is or if it is a new one. Once identified, scientists determine whether these variants are potentially dangerous and if they need to be monitored.
Variants of Concern (VOCs)
Variants of concern are strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus with genetic changes that impact the spread and risk of COVID-19. In order to avoid stigmatization and to promote communication, the WHO has developed a naming system using letters of the Greek alphabet. Variants are named soon after discovery if they are thought to:
- Have increased transmissibility
- Increase disease severity
- Decrease the effectiveness of public health measures, diagnostics, therapeutics, or vaccines
Current variants of concern
|Variant of Concern||Where it was First Found||Date of Designation|
|Alpha||UK||December 18, 2020|
|Beta||South Africa||December 18, 2020|
|Gamma||Brazil||January 11, 2021|
|Delta||India||May 11, 2021|
Variants of Interest (VOIs)
The WHO has also named four variants of interest: Eta, Iota, Kappa, and the Lambda variant. These are strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus with genetic changes that have the potential to affect transmissibility and/or disease severity. Scientists actively monitor these potential global public health threats to determine how dangerous they are.
Current variants of Interest
|Variant of Concern||Where it was First Found||Date of Designation|
|Eta||Multiple countries||March 17, 2021|
|Iota||USA||March 24, 2021|
|Kappa||India||April 4, 2021|
|Lambda||Peru||June 14, 2021|
COVID-19 Lambda Variant
The Delta variant is the main concern in the U.S., but the Lambda variant is the dominating strain in Peru, where it was first found. The Lambda variant was first found in a hospital in Houston this week, but It is unclear if the Lambda variant will take over the majority of cases in the U.S.
Vaccines Against the Lambda Variant
While the study has not yet been peer-reviewed, there is no evidence to suggest vaccines are not working against the Lambda variant, except in the case of CoronaVac, the Sinovac vaccine. Both the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines prove effective at preventing serious disease and hospitalization from the Lambda Variant.
The rate of vaccination will determine whether the Lambda variant will mutate to become vaccine resistant. Dr. Anthony Fauci recently referred to COVID-19 as the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Fully vaccinated individuals account for less than 1% of COVID-19 deaths.
Lambda Variant Transmissibility
When a virus mutates, these mutations can change the genetic makeup of the virus and cause it to be more contagious. There have been several mutations in the Lambda variant identified that could increase its transmissibility or resistance to antibodies. The symptoms of the Lambda variant are the same as other strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
COVID-19 Delta Plus Variant
The Delta Plus variant refers to three subtypes of the Delta variant: AY.1, AY.2, AY.3. The Delta variant is continuing to mutate because it is still spreading, but there is no evidence that they are more of a threat than the Delta variant overall. As of August 10, 2021, the Delta variant has spread to 142 countries across the globe.
Countries Reporting Delta Variant
Characteristics of the Delta Variant
The defining characteristic of the Delta variant is the possibility for vaccinated individuals to spread the virus at a similar rate to unvaccinated individuals. While the risk of hospitalization is much less for fully vaccinated individuals, the Delta variant can cause more severe disease than other strains. Delta Plus variants are arising since many people remain unvaccinated. It is NOT the vaccinated individuals primarily spreading the Delta variant.
Vaccines Against Delta Plus Variant
Eight recent studies have evaluated the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against the Delta variant. Even though the vaccines are less effective at preventing COVID-19 infection from the Delta variant, they are protecting fully vaccinated individuals from moderate and severe disease from the Delta variant. The bottom line: vaccines are still working.
COVID-19 Variants Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Each day new data is published regarding the COVID-19 variants, and headlines are full of misleading information. Below we answer some basic questions regarding the new Lambda and Delta Plus variants.
Do vaccines cause new variants to emerge?
No, vaccines do not cause new COVID-19 variants. Viruses have the opportunity to mutate when spread from person to person. Vaccinated individuals have less of a chance of contracting the virus, and therefore spreading it. Even when vaccinated individuals are infected, the ability of the virus to replicate and spread is much less. The best way to avoid more variants is to get vaccinated.
Can vaccinated individuals spread the Delta?
Vaccinated people can spread the Delta variant, but they are NOT as contagious as unvaccinated people. Despite recent alarming news, there is a lack of evidence to conclude the Delta variant can be spread at the same rate for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. While it is possible, the available data is constantly changing as the Delta variant continues to spread.
What happened in Provincetown, Massachusetts?
There was an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with 74% among vaccinated individuals. About 90% of these infections were found to be caused by the Delta variant. The problem is, this statistic lacks context.
Of all of those who were vaccinated and infected, there were zero deaths and seven hospitalizations--evidence that vaccines are working. If these people were unvaccinated, we would expect this outbreak to have been much more serious.
Are the COVID-19 vaccines working against variants?
Yes. While vaccine effectiveness is less than 100%, it is more than 0% and prevents nearly all COVID-19 related deaths and hospitalizations. There is a large amount of contradictory information circulating the web, but rest assured that vaccines are working.
Now is a good time to reconsider getting vaccinated if you have not yet already. If we work together to obtain herd immunity and mask up in the meantime, this pandemic can come to an end. Here are some resources to help you find a vaccination appointment near you:
Should pregnant individuals get vaccinated?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is strongly recommending COVID-19 vaccination for pregnant individuals, especially with the rise of the new variants. There has been a recent increase in unvaccinated pregnant persons getting hospitalized with COVID-19 due to the low vaccination rate among this population.
New research has proved that the mRNA vaccines do not cause miscarriages, and the risk of complications from COVID-19 is much greater than the risks of getting vaccinated. Of course, speak with your doctor if you are concerned to determine the risk course of action for your situation.
As new variants arise, ongoing research is needed to determine the potential threat to human society. Right now, scientists and experts are confident in the ability of vaccines to protect all people from serious illness and hospitalization caused by COVID-19.