THE "Lambda" variant ripping through 30 countries including the UK could be more deadly than the Delta strain, doctors warn.
Malaysian health officials say reports show the strain, which originated from Peru, is "more infectious than the Delta variant".
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The Malaysian Health Ministry said Peru was now experiencing "the highest mortality rate in the world,” on Monday.
This comes as Chilean researchers found the variant could be resistant to Covid vaccines.
Experts at the University of Chile who studied the virus in local healthcare workers who received two doses of China's CoronaVac jab say Lambda is more infectious than the Brazilian and UK mutations.
"Our data show for the first time that mutations present in the spike protein of the Lambda variant confer escape to neutralising antibodies and increased infectivity,” they wrote in a paper yet to be peer reviewed.
"It is possible that it may exhibit higher infection rates, but we don't yet have enough reliable data to compare it to gamma or delta."
Also known as C.37, the Lambda strain was first detected in Peru last year before quickly spreading to 30 countries, including Britain.
Of particular concern to virologists is the L452Q spike protein because of its potential to infect human cells like the L452R mutation in the highly infectious Delta variant.
Peruvian scientists noticed the variant in December when it accounted for “just one in every 200 samples”.
By March, that jumped to 50 per cent of cases. Now that figure is a whopping 82 per cent, according to the WHO.
Pablo Tsukayama, a molecular scientist at the Cayetano Heredia university in Lima said the virus' rapid rise "would suggest its rate of transmission is higher than other variants".
In neighbouring Chile, it accounts for almost a third of cases, though scientists are unable to say which the strain is more transmissible.
Six cases have already been reported in the UK – all of which were linked to overseas travel.
Public Health England declared it as a Covid Variant Under Investigation.
An "unusual set of mutations" have made testing the virus' virulence hard to do, says top science director Jeff Barrett.
He also worried a lack of gene sequencing labs in South America has allowed the virus to spread almost undetected.
The World Health Organisation classified Lambda as a global Variant of Interest on 14 June.
WHO said it has mutations that increases transmissibility and potentially dodge vaccines, although there is not enough evidence to know for certain.
"So far we have seen no indication that the lambda variant is more aggressive," the WHO virologist Jairo Mendez-Rico told German news outlet DW.
"It’s possible that it has a higher rate of contagion but more work needs to be done on it."
He added: "It is likely that SARS-CoV-2 will become more transmissible throughout the course of its evolution but not necessarily more damaging to the host."
Health officials hope vaccines combined with people becoming resistant to the virus after being infected will stop the spread.
Peru overtook Brazil as having the world's worst per capita Covid death toll.
Health officials in the country tripled the official Covid death toll to 180,764, up from 69,342 after a government review found cases were not being properly recorded.
Peru has been one of the hardest hit countries in Latin America, with hospitals overrun and with demand for oxygen sending supplies plummeting.
According to Johns Hopkins Data, Peru is clocking 500 Covid deaths per 100,000 people.
"We think it is our duty to make public this updated information," said the Peruvian prime minister, Violeta Bermúdez, at a news conference announcing the result of the review.
"What is being said is that a significant number of deaths were not classified as caused by Covid-19," the health minister, Óscar Ugarte, said.
Though Brazil has the highest total Covid-19 death toll with more than 450,000 lives lost, based on population, Peru's tally is more than double its Amazon neighbour.
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