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Will vaccines be effective against mutations of COVID-19?

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Fort Wayne's NBC) -- We all know health leaders want as many people as possible to get the vaccine for the coronavirus.

But will they work on the new mutiations of the virus?

A more contagious strain of COVID-19 that's become dominant in South Africa doesn't appear to be phased by AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine, which was tested in trials at Indiana University.

AstraZeneca's vaccine was formulated differently and proved to be overall less effective than Moderna's or Pfizer's shots, but was still about 75% effective around the world.

However, a small South African study using younger patients found the AstraZeneca shots provided minimal protection against mild and moderate cases of the South African variant of the coronavirus.

The South Africa strain of COVID-19 is now in the United States.

One million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in South Africa were intended for health care and other essential workers, but the government is not allowing those doses to be distributed because of the new findings.

That strain of COVID-19 is now here in the United States, and Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter says that's reason for concern and caution.

"It's the reason we want to keep case rates down while we're rolling out these vaccines out. What we don't want to have happen is a new variant that's markedly changed come in and get a foothold while we're rolling out these vaccines," he said.

That's because the original vaccines were formulated to fight the original disease.

But viruses mutate, and we will likely see more strains evolve.

So does that mean today's vaccines won't be effective against tomorrow's virus mutations?

"The good news is the mRNA vaccines in particular, the Pfizer and the Moderna, are pretty easy to tweak, to make changes to actually be effective against particular variants. So we could do that much quicker than we can with other vaccines," Sutter said.

He says the current vaccines should hold up in the long run.

"Even if they're not 95% effective like the Pfizer and the Moderna, they'd still be very good at preventing death, and in fact may drive the mortality for COVID-19 well below that of normal flu. If that's the case, that's a home run," he said.

Dr. Sutter says he hopes that everyone who wants the vaccine will be able to get one by the end of summer, which could be a major turning point in the fight against the disease.

He says in time, we could see recommendations for an annual booster shot for the coronavirus or even see it combined with the flu vaccine in one dose.

Corinne Rose

Corinne Rose is a reporter for WPTA.

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