As the Lambda COVID-19 variant dominates South America, should Canadians be concerned?

Click to play video: 'What Canadians need to know about Lambda COVID-19 variant'
What Canadians need to know about Lambda COVID-19 variant
WATCH: What Canadians need to know about Lambda COVID-19 variant – Jul 7, 2021

As the Lambda variant wreaks havoc in South America, several cases of the COVID-19 strain have made their way into Canada.

As of Wednesday, provincial health authorities said the Lambda variant accounts for 5.7 per cent of all cases detected within the last week in Canada, with a majority of them found in Quebec.

Here’s what you need to know.

The earliest documented samples of the Lambda variant were identified by the World Health Organization in December in Peru. Since then, it has widely circulated through South American countries like Argentina and Chile, accounting for more than 20 per cent of variant cases reported within the region.

Read more: Canada has few Lambda variant cases, but ‘full impact’ still unclear: Tam

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Cause for alarm?

Emerging research from scientific research journal BioRxiv has found the Lambda strain is highly infectious and more resistant to vaccines than the original COVID-19 strain.

In laboratory experiments that have yet to be peer-reviewed, researchers have found that three mutations in Lambda’s spike protein, known as RSYLTPGD246-253N, 260 L452Q and F490S, help it resist vaccine-induced antibodies. Two additional mutations, T76I and L452Q, are what help make the Lambda variant better at infecting our cells.

However, the World Health Organization has yet to designate it as a “Variant of Concern,” but instead labels it a “Variant of Interest.

This is primarily because the variant has been spreading at a faster rate than the original strain and has been linked to community transmission, despite not racking up cases in much of the world, said Dr. Omar Khan, a biomedical engineering professor at the University of Toronto.

“Something that spreads more easily and can take a hold in partially or unvaccinated people just replicates more often and then you’re going to have more mutations happening,” he said. “That’s how you really accelerate viral evolution, through very rapid and quick transmission.”

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But despite this, experts also aren’t sounding the alarm just yet.

“It’s unclear whether it is as dangerous as Delta or other variants in North America and the rest of the world,” said Dr. Anthony Chow, founding head of the University of British Columbia’s infectious diseases department and professor emeritus.

Canadians should concentrate on getting vaccinated, Chow said, which denies variants the opportunity to replicate.

“As long as there’s a sizeable portion that is unvaccinated, it creates an opportunity for Lambda and other variants to replicate,” he said.

“The more they replicate, the more mutations will occur and the more likelihood that you will come out with much more resistant and more infectious variants.”

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Lambda variant circulating in Canada'
Health Matters: Lambda variant circulating in Canada

Few Lambda cases in Canada

At 5.7 per cent of all reported COVID-19 cases in Canada, the Lambda variant is still far behind Delta, which accounts for just over 78 per cent of cases detected throughout the country. The exact number of confirmed variant cases is unclear, as PHAC reports on the total Canadian proportions of variants, not totals split up by provinces and territories.

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Chow said Canada’s strict travel policies are partly to thank for the lack of a Lambda-driven wave.

Chow noted measures such as closing the borders to non-essential travel, as well as 14-day quarantines are helpful.

“Travel policy limiting importation, that is key,” he said.

But Canada’s vaccine record could also be a factor.

“We have a different set of vaccines from the rest of the world, especially South America,” Khan said.

Read more: Canada’s top doctor discusses Lambda COVID-19 variant of interest

Khan, who has family in South America, told Global News they are still trying to gain access to AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines — shots the countries “can afford.” But vaccination could also play a large role in why there aren’t more cases of Lambda in Canada.

More than 70 per cent of Canadians aged 12 and up are fully vaccinated and over 81 per cent have received at least one dose, the latest data from the federal government shows. Those numbers are much lower in South America, where many countries are reporting 30 per cent or less of their populations are fully vaccinated, according to Our World In Data.

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It is difficult to track how well vaccines are holding up against variants in real-time across multiple continents when there is an uneven vaccine distribution and different countries are using different vaccines, Khan added.

“Things that spread this quickly tend to be the engines of viral evolution,” he said. “And really, that’s what’s getting us in trouble.”

–With files from Reuters

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