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Fauci confident vaccine companies ready for 'mutant' coronavirus strains

Federal health agencies are preparing for the possibility that the current COVID-19 vaccines might not be effective against future strains of the coronavirus, Anthony FauciAnthony FauciFauci donates personal COVID-19 virus model to Smithsonian Fauci warns of risks from single-dose strategy for Pfizer, Moderna vaccines MAGALand in Orlando MORE said Wednesday, but he has confidence that drug companies will be able to quickly change the formula.

Speaking at an event hosted by The Hill, Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the federally authorized vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are effective against multiple strains that have been identified so far.

Fauci noted that monoclonal antibody treatments may not necessarily be as effective, but he is not worried about vaccines.

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"We are preparing, in anticipation that the virus will continue to evolve and may get to the point where it crosses the threshold that our vaccine is no longer effective as we want it to be," Fauci said. 

"We don't want it to happen. We hope it doesn't happen. If it does, we're already doing what it takes to be able to address that," Fauci added.

Fauci said he is confident the country has enough supply of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, especially if President Biden is able to secure an additional 100 million doses from each company, a move the president announced Tuesday.

The calculations do not include Johnson & Johnson, a company Fauci said is "literally on the cusp" of final safety and efficacy trial results.

There are currently three variants of the coronavirus that are concerning experts and health officials: the B.1.1.7 strain, which was discovered in the United Kingdom; B.1.351, which was found in South Africa; and P.1, which has become dominant in Brazil.

Fauci said the technology and science behind the vaccines is easily adaptable, so if they need to be updated it can happen quickly.  

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"It's going to make it that much more easier for us to adapt to the mutants, the new lineages that we're seeing in South Africa, in the U.K., in Brazil — the U.K. one being already in 25 or more states," Fauci said.

"So it is likely that as we move forward, even though our vaccines look like they still are effective against the new lineages, as the virus evolves, we may need to quickly develop a booster that's reflecting the mutant that is circulating so that we can use antibodies to protect," Fauci said.

Earlier Wednesday, Fauci said during a White House briefing that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will work with the National Institutes of Health to study the efficacy of the vaccines against new strains.

"We will be monitoring in real time the effect of antibodies that we induced with the current vaccines, and with future vaccines, as to what impact they have on the ability to neutralize these mutants," Fauci said. 

He added that if the vaccines start to become less effective, that's when they will start to take actions like "making a version of the same vaccine that in fact will be directed specifically against the relevant mutants."

Fauci said "things get a bit more problematic” with the B.1.351 strain that’s dominant in South Africa. 

But Fauci added the vaccine is effective, and "it still is well within the cushion of protection.” 

Despite some positive developments, Fauci told The Hill there is still a long way to go, and the U.S. won't be able to approach "some degree of normality" until late fall.

"We have to be prepared that this will be an elusive virus, that we would have to make some modifications in our interventions, whatever they may be; an upgraded vaccine, different types of monoclonal antibodies," Fauci said.

"So yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel, we will begin to approach some degree of normality as we get into the late fall of this year as we get into the winter. But we've got to keep our eye on it and our pressure on it. Otherwise, it could slip away from this."