Yale doc: Worry about delta variant, not lambda

Photo of Ed Stannard
Dr. Thomas Balcezak, chief clinical officer of Yale New Haven Health.

Dr. Thomas Balcezak, chief clinical officer of Yale New Haven Health.

Yale University / Contributed photo

As more variants of the coronavirus crop up, the original strain of the virus that started the COVID-19 pandemic is being crowded out.

The lambda variant, first reported in Peru, has been in the news in recent days, but it’s nothing to worry about, at least for now, said Dr. Thomas Balcezak, chief clinical officer for Yale New Haven Health.

“We don’t have any lambda variant here in New Haven that we’re aware of,” he said Tuesday. “We have not seen it yet … but it’s only a matter of time.”

He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization don’t even agree on whether it’s a “variant of interest,” the lowest of three “levels of stratification for variants,” Balcezak said.

The WHO considers lambda a variant of interest, which is defined as “a change in the genome that impacts the protein on the virus that may cause it to be more dangerous, more infectious or evade immunity,” Balcezak said.

The CDC does not name the lambda variant on its list of variants discovered so far.

Locally and nationally, the delta variant is dominant, and it is considered a variant of concern by the CDC, the second of three levels. Balcezak said that designation “means there’s some evidence of impact on diagnostics, treatments, meaning what treatments are effective … whether the vaccines we have provide protection” and transmissibility.

Delta has proven to be highly contagious, although it’s still not clear whether it causes more severe illness. “There’s some evidence that it might be slightly more severe, but it’s not a lot,” Balcezak said. He said breakthrough cases, in which vaccinated people come down with COVID, are most likely attributed to the delta variant.

Recently, 14 residents and five staff members were reported positive for COVID at the Masonicare Health Center in Wallingford, where 94 percent of residents have been vaccinated and where vaccination is required for staff. The cases were mild, however.

The other variants of concern found in Connecticut include alpha, first detected in the United Kingdom; beta, (South Africa); gamma (Japan and Brazil); and epsilon (California). Delta was first detected in India.

“The changes are relatively subtle” between variants, Balcezak said. “The essence of the virus is still the same. What these represent are small changes in the protein on the surface of the virus.”

Vaccines prevent the virus from attaching to that protein, So far, vaccines have prevented serious illness in most people, even as the delta variant has become dominant, Balcezak said.

The third, most serious classification of variants are those of high consequence, meaning they are “super-infectious or evade immunity,” with vaccines unable to prevent illness. The CDC has reported no variants of high consequence.

Balcezak said with the uncertainty about variants, those who are vaccinated “should be wearing a mask if you’re in public and you’re not sure if people around are vaccinated.”

edward.stannard@hearstmediact.com; 203-680-9382