The lambda COVID-19 variant is now spreading in Canada — here’s what you need to know

Multiple variants of the virus behind COVID-19 are circulating in Canada, and lambda has now joined their ranks.

While only a small number of cases have been reported countrywide so far, public health officials are keeping a close eye on this variant of interest first identified in South America.

So what do Canadians need to know about lambda? Here’s the latest:

What is the lambda variant?

Lambda, or C.37, is one of the latest variants of the virus behind COVID-19, and it’s now being reported in Canada.

The first samples were found in Peru back in August 2020, but it was only deemed a variant of interest by the World Health Organization (WHO) in mid-June.

“Lambda has been associated with substantive rates of community transmission in multiple countries, with rising prevalence over time concurrent with increased COVID-19 incidence,” reads an epidemiological update from the WHO released on June 15.

How widespread is it?

In Canada, 11 cases of the variant have been reported as of July 5, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) told CBC News in a statement. 

PHAC is “monitoring carefully” for more cases and research tied to the variant’s transmissibility and vaccines’ effectiveness against it, said spokesperson Anne Génier.

Two recently discovered cases were in Alberta and both are tied to travel, health officials there said on Wednesday.

According to the WHO, lambda has also been reported in dozens of other countries.

So far, it’s hitting South America the hardest. The variant has been on the rise in countries beyond Peru such as Ecuador, Argentina and Chile — and in the latter, it recently accounted for more than a third of all the country’s sequenced cases.

A health-care worker checks on a patient at the COVID-19 specialized ward at the Honorio Delgado Hospital in Arequipa, Peru, in late June. (AFP/Getty Images)

What makes lambda worth keeping an eye on?

Lambda carries a “number of mutations,” according to the WHO, which may make it more transmissible or resistant to neutralizing antibodies.

“There are mutations on the spike protein portion of the virus, which as we know is one of the important pieces of the virus, and the mutations are slightly different than some of the previous mutations we’ve seen,” said Dr. Lucas Castellani, an infectious diseases specialist at the Sault Area Hospital in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. 

“That said, what we don’t know is what all of this means.”

So far, there’s “limited evidence” on the impact of the changes to the spike protein, the WHO notes, but public health teams around the world are hoping to learn more about how the variant operates.

Dr. Anthony Chow, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s division of infectious diseases, also cautioned that the strain has the potential to turn into a variant of concern.

“It is highly transmissible, and that it has been a hallmark of variants of concern — the way they spread,” said Chow.

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