COVID-19 vaccine effect on South African variant raises concerns

COVID-19 numbers are improving, but that doesn't mean you can to let your guard down.

Three months ago Melissa Aguilar was admitted to the hospital for COVID-19.

"It was scary. I didn't see anybody the whole time I was there," she told ABC13.

What made it more lonely is the day she arrived, her mother Melinda, died from the virus.

"Sitting in that emergency room, knowing that my mom had passed away, knowing my mom was in the morgue was very tough," said Aguilar.

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Aguilar has recovered but as a Fort Bend County resident, hearing that the South African variant was found in her county raises concerns.

"It is scary because I don't ever want this again," said Aguilar.

There are several highly contagious COVID-19 variants moving in the U.S., including the one that originated in the U.K., which is expected to become the dominant strain by the end of March. But it's the South African one that experts are worried about, as they said the vaccines seem to be less effective against it.

Researchers at Houston Methodist have been gathering data on every COVID-19 positive case in their system since March. They have been examining the genome sequence or genetic make-up in each one of those positive cases - it's now up to 20,000 genomes. Through this research, they recently discovered the South African variant in Fort Bend County.

"It's really been a tireless effort from a team of individuals since the start of the pandemic, working seven days a week quite often to do all the work to get these sequences to study the variants," said Houston Methodist's Dr. Wesley Long.

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There's been some concern that the vaccines may not be as effective against the variant found in South Africa, but Long says you will still have protection once you're vaccinated.

"For the vaccines we have approved in the U.S. right now, and for the therapies we have approved in the U.S., we don't have any strong evidence that these variants are going to escape the protections of these treatments or vaccines," said Long.

As for Aguilar, she's on her way to being fully protected. She's had her first dose of the vaccine and is set to get her second soon.

"I do hope that [COVID-19 vaccine] does give me some protection, and with the new strain out there, I just hope and pray that I don't get it," said Aguilar.

She says getting the vaccine has made her less anxious and she's certainly thankful for that.

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