A Covid variant causing major concern in parts of the world has officially landed in Australia.
The variant, named Lambda by the World Health Organisation (WHO) last month, was detected in a traveller in hotel quarantine in NSW in April, the ABC reported on Tuesday, citing the national genomics database AusTrakka.
First detected in Peru in December 2020, the Lambda mutation (also known as C.37) has become the biggest variant of concern on the South American continent.
While it's still early days, reports have fuelled concerns the mutation could pose problems for current Covid vaccines.
"It is quite an infectious strain and it has actually been the strain of concern in Latin America," says Professor Jaya AR Dantas from Curtin University’s School of Population Health.
After being first detected in Peru, it has since spread heavily in Ecuador, Chile and Argentina and at least 25 other countries.
"Basically it started with 200 cases in Peru in December and by March 80 per cent of infections were caused by the Lambda variant," she told Yahoo News Australia.
Peru, where the Lambda strain is rife, currently has the highest mortality rate in the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Lambda emerged about the same time as the Delta strain which has spread around much of the globe and fuelled Australia's latest outbreaks and subsequent lockdowns.
While the Delta variant is one of four "variants of concern" as described by the WHO (along with Alpha, Beta and Gamma), the Lambda variant is listed as one of seven "variants of interest".
Meanwhile the UK designated Lambda a “Variant Under Investigation” on June 23, after six cases were detected in the community.
Concerns about Lambda and vaccine effectiveness
Early studies of the Lambda strain shows it has a mutation similar to that found in the Delta variant which potentially makes it more infectious.
While research published in the journal Medrxiv, but not yet peer reviewed, has stoked concerns about the strain showing a high level of resistance to vaccines.
Chile, which has about 60 per cent of its population vaccinated largely with a Chinese-made vaccine CoronaVac (also known as SinoVac), has still seen high infection rates of Covid-19 despite the strong inoculation program.
"Our results indicate that mutations present in the spike protein of the Lambda variant of interest confer increased infectivity and immune escape from neutralising antibodies elicited by CoronaVac," researchers wrote.
Prof Dantas puts the high infection rate seen in Chile down to the Lambda strain, rather than ongoing questions about the effectiveness of China's vaccines.
"I don't actually think it's the vaccination that was used, it's just that we don't know how these variants react to the vaccines.
"All of these variants are of a concern because they react differently to public health measures," she said.
However Prof Dantas pointed out that vaccines can be relied upon to reduce the severity of Covid cases in the event someone does become infected.
While she lamented that Australia has been slow in its vaccination program, Prof Dantas said "we need to increase the vaccination rates not only in the developed world but across the world" to protect against ongoing mutations which could see the pandemic roll on for years to come.
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