A new coronavirus variant that's worse than Delta?

AP Photo

The media should probably just stop reporting on these, at least until there’s a strain out there that really does reliably punch through the vaccines. Otherwise, what’s the point? Neither the vaccinated or the unvaccinated are going to behave differently until there’s a gamechanger.

And the unvaccinated probably won’t behave differently even then.

The new “variant of interest” is C.37, a.k.a. “Lambda,” and it’s been working its way around South America for months. Lately several cases have turned up in the UK, one of a few dozen countries where the variant has been found. The two hardest-hit nations are Chile and especially Peru, where Lambda was detected as far back as last August and now accounts for 81 percent of cases. Peru’s case curve doesn’t look much different than anyone else’s, raising the question of why scientists would be anxious about Lambda:

There’s an answer to that question, though. Measured by deaths per capita, Peru has had the worst COVID outbreak on Earth — by a country mile:

Scientists are trying to figure out why Peru’s death rate is so freakishly high, dwarfing even Brazil’s, and are looking at C.37 as a possible culprit. The variant does have some “unusual” mutations that may make it more capable of breaking through immunity:

Lambda has a unique pattern of seven mutations in the spike protein that the virus uses to infect human cells. Researchers are particularly intrigued by one mutation called L452Q, which is similar to the L452R mutation believed to contribute to the high infectiousness of the Delta variant.

Monica Acevedo and colleagues at the University of Chile, Santiago, studied the effect of Lambda on viral infectivity using blood samples from local healthcare workers who had received two doses of the CoronaVac vaccine from China. 

Their results, published a preprint paper on Thursday, suggest that Lambda is more infectious than Gamma and Alpha and better able to escape the antibodies produced by vaccination. “Our data show for the first time that mutations present in the spike protein of the Lambda variant confer escape to neutralising antibodies and increased infectivity,” they wrote.

It could be more transmissible, more deadly, more vaccine-resistant, or all three — although if it’s more transmissible then Peru’s case curve becomes hard to explain. In fact, despite the gruesome results in Peru, scientists aren’t sure yet that Lambda is any worse than any other variant. It’s been in the UK since February and has yet to explode there, being outrun by the B.1.617 “Delta” variant from India. There’s also some early evidence that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are effective against it. It could be that the bizarre lethality of Peru’s pandemic is due to unrelated factors, like poor health care — or much more thorough reporting on COVID deaths than other countries.

There’s another X factor. South American countries like Peru and Chile are using China’s weak vaccines, which may be easier for Lambda and other variants to defeat. The “CoronaVac” vaccine mentioned in the excerpt above is another name for China’s Sinovac vaccine, which is famously ineffective after one dose and not very effective at preventing transmission even after two doses. Is Lambda really more vaccine-resistant than other strains of the virus or does it just have the good fortune to be circulating in a part of the world with substandard vaccine immunity?

Also, if Chile is also rife with the Lambda strain, with some one-third of current cases caused by C.37, then why isn’t their death rate similarly off the charts? They rank 25th in the world in deaths per capita, behind Brazil, the U.S., the UK, Italy, Spain, and Mexico. They haven’t experienced a true spike in deaths in a year, in fact, although their daily toll remains stubbornly constant:

Maybe Lambda will end up being the latest variant to kick up enough of a fuss to grab scientists’ attention and then to lose it when it turns out not to be much different in any meaningful way from other strains of the virus. Remember the California and New York variants? They popped up in America’s COVID hot spots, gave researchers a scare as they became more prevalent, but ended up not wreaking the sort of havoc that the Alpha and Delta variants from abroad have. Maybe C.37 is in the same category — concerning at first blush, ho-hum upon further review.

As for the difference between Peru’s catastrophic death rate and Chile’s bad-but-not-unusually-so one, maybe this graph explains it. Although both countries are battling Lambda, Chile’s doing it with a lot, lot, lot more vaccines than Peru is:

The Chinese vaccines are bad at preventing transmission but not bad at preventing serious illness after both doses. Maybe Chile’s done better at keeping people out of the ICU simply because it’s gotten many more doses into people, with those doses working (for the most part) even against Lambda.