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August 24, 2021 • read

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The delta and lambda variants — what you need to know

Humans and viruses are both successful adaptors, adept at changing to suit their environment. So it’s no surprise that as vaccination rates rise, new COVID-19 variants are causing cases of the virus to surge. By now you’ve likely heard of the delta and lambda variants, but just how different are they to the original COVID-19 strain? Here’s everything you need to know about these two variants, and what their Canadian arrival means for you.

What’s the difference between delta and lambda?

Dubbed a “variant of concern,” the delta variant has been spreading across the globe since December 2020. Delta is the most contagious variant so far. It makes up over 83% of COVID cases in the US, and is quickly gaining ground here in Canada. One Canadian study, and another Scottish one, also show that those infected with delta are more likely to be hospitalized. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) isn’t calling lambda a variant of concern just yet. Instead, they’ve dubbed it a “variant of interest,” meaning it has mutations that likely affect both its contagiousness and severity. It’s responsible for the majority of cases in South America, though cases are turning up worldwide, including in Canada. Scientists need more data on this variant before deciding whether to upgrade it to a variant of concern or not.

How transmissible are the new variants?

The delta variant is about 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant, which is itself about 50% more contagious than the original strain of COVID-19. In addition to being more infectious, individuals with the delta variant become contagious about four days after infection — two days sooner than with the original version of COVID-19. They also have about 1000 times the viral load of an original COVID-19 infection. This makes delta incredibly difficult to stop without extensive vaccine uptake.

It’s not yet clear how transmissible the lambda variant is. While it does have a number of mutations that likely mean it spreads more easily than the original strain of COVID-19, more research is still needed.

I’m double vaccinated, should I worry about the variants?

Vaccines continue to be essential in the fight against COVID-19, and there’s no doubt that they save lives. Almost 99% of COVID-19 deaths in Canada have been among the unvaccinated, the partially vaccinated, or those who hadn’t been vaccinated long enough to achieve full protection. And since the start of the vaccination campaign in December 2020, 90% of COVID-19 cases overall have been among the unvaccinated population.

While vaccines protect against hospitalization and death, they won’t keep you completely safe from getting the delta variant. Breakthrough infections are still possible even if you’ve been double vaccinated. And when these breakthrough infections happen, research shows that vaccinated people have the same levels of virus particles in their nose and throat as unvaccinated people do. This means that although you’re more likely to experience mild symptoms, you’re just as able to spread the virus as those who don’t have their jabs yet. This is part of the reason why masks are making a comeback in the US.

Do the delta and lambda variants mean I need a booster?

There are reports that certain vaccines — like Sinovac — don’t work as well against the new variants. Luckily, Health Canada-approved vaccines are between 96% and 92% effective at preventing severe illness. Those with a single shot, however, don’t enjoy the same levels of protection. One shot of Pfizer or AstraZeneca only gives you somewhere in the range of 30% protection from severe forms of the disease, so it’s a good idea to double up. Once you’re doubly dosed, you can consider yourself adequately protected.

While some countries are offering third, “booster” shots, the World Health Organization (WHO) is pleading for them to reconsider. There is a limited supply of vaccine available. Most agree that doses should go to countries with high rates of COVID-19, and few vaccines, rather than countries like Canada, with lower rates of the virus, and high rates of vaccination. This saves lives in countries with low vaccination rates, but it’s also good for the world as a whole. Fewer vaccines mean more people for the virus to infect, and more opportunities to continue mutating. High levels of global vaccine uptake will help to prevent future COVID-19 variants — one of which might be able to evade existing vaccines.

How can I prevent COVID-19 from spreading?

There’s no question that COVID-19 vaccines work. But the new variants are more transmissible than the virus that came before them, and not everyone in Canada is eligible to get their jabs yet. Health Canada still hasn’t approved vaccines for use in children under 12, who make up almost 16% of the population. Along with the immunocompromised and the unvaccinated, these children remain vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.

To help keep them safe, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated areas, and keep your distance when you’re indoors in larger groups. Things like grocery shopping, riding public transit, and going to the movies should all be done with a mask. COVID-19 is proving to be a resilient virus, and its new variants are a significant threat to the health of the unvaccinated. Continue to follow public health measures and encourage those close to you to do so as well. The news about the new variants is disturbing. With vaccines and public health measures, however, you can help keep yourself and those you love safe. Even if you’ve been vaccinated, you should still get tested for COVID-19 if you’ve been exposed to it. While being vaccinated protects you, it’s still possible to spread the virus to others. If you live in the Greater Toronto Area or anywhere in Nova Scotia, you can get a COVID-19 test with Maple quickly and conveniently at a location nearest you.

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