SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – While Utah is seeing dozens of cases of the Delta variant each week, there are two variants some doctors are worried about. One is the Lambda variant while the other – B.1.621 – does not yet have a name.
Delta remains the most prevalent variant in the U.S., with over 5,000 cases detected in Utah since April, health officials say the Lambda strain is starting to emerge and little is known about it. The lambda variant was first recorded in Peru in 2020, according to the World Health Organization, and was sequenced in Utah earlier this summer.
“We do not know whether this is going to be better or worse than Delta, there’s not enough information,” Dr. Andrew Yurochko with LSU Health Shreveport tells NewsNation. “Forty-four states have reported Lambda cases and WHO has labeled it “a variant of interest.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not added the Lambda variant, or C.37, to any of its three classes of SARS-CoV-2 variants. The B.1.621 variant is also not on any of the CDC’s lists. It is on the WHO’s list of variants designated for further monitoring.
Discovered in Colombia earlier this year, the B.1.621 variant recently caused an outbreak in a Belgium nursing home and killed seven fully vaccinated people, Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Vaccine Research Group at the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., tells ABC4 affiliate WPIX. He says it is now responsible for 9% of the cases seen in Miami.
Additionally, ABC4 affiliate WFLA reports the variant has spread in the Jacksonville area. Yet neither the B.1.621 variant nor the Lambda variant appears more lethal than the Delta variant, health experts say, and “very few patients” have been seen at a Tampa hospital with either.
Dr. Kelly Oakeson, Chief Scientist with Next-Generation Sequencing & Bioinformatics, tells ABC4.com the B.1.621 lineage was first detected in Utah in May. Since then, Dr. Oakeson reports a total of 291 cases of the variant have been sequenced. Because the variant is not on the WHO’s list of variants of concern, the Utah Department of Health is not reporting these cases on its dashboard. This is also true for the Lambda variant, of which just 27 cases have been detected in Utah since March.
“The process of detecting variants is a bit more complex than just a PCR test; it is a process call whole-genome sequencing (WGS),” Dr. Oakeson explains. After a PCR test, scientists are able to extract the viral genetic material from the same sample the swap test receives. Typically, they are able to use the leftover material not used to conduct the PCR test.
“Once we have the genetic material, we use some rather complex molecular biology to determine the sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 viral genome in that sample,” Oakeson outlines. “In other words, we determine the sequence of A, C, T, G of the virus.”
Currently, Oakeson and his team are averaging about 10 days from PCR sample collection to whole-genome sequencing variant results. Not every COVID-19 test is sequenced. According to Oakeson, only samples collected by a PCR test can be sequenced – rapid antigen tests do not leave any type of sample that can be sequenced. Oakeson’s team is currently has a goal to sequence 75% of all the positive PCR tests.