While children are much less likely to have serious disease, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19 than adults, says Timothy Brewer, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA, their risk isn't nonexistent—some kids do get seriously ill. According to the Associated Press, 13,500 American children have been hospitalized from COVID-19 infections, and 268 have died (the majority of whom are children of color). Additionally, COVID-19 is also (rarely) associated with something called multisystem inflammatory disease in children, which can have life-long consequences. "We wouldn't want that to occur if we could prevent it," says Dr. Brewer.
And even though young children are less likely to transmit SARS-CoV-2 than others, that risk, again, is not zero, and adolescents have been associated with transmission. There's also concern that some newer strains, like the B.117 strain out of the UK, might be more transmissible in children. And for American society to reach herd immunity, children—who make up 25 percent of the U.S. population—need to be inoculated.
This is how vaccines work, according to a biochemist:
The good news is that those 16 years of age and older are already eligible for the vaccine, and 12- to 15-year-olds should be eligible for shots soon, says Dr. Brewer. He notes that at the end of March, Pfizer-BioNTech announced the results of a trial they ran on 2,260 12- to 15-year-olds which showed that the vaccine was both safe and effective, at least clinically. The company has since applied for an expansion of its emergency use application to include vaccinations for the 12- to 15-year-old age group, and that application is pending; however, it's expected to be approved, with vaccinations rolling out this summer. “We project that high school students will very likely be able to be vaccinated by the fall term, maybe not the very first day, but certainly in the early part of the fall,” Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, recently said.
Pfizer-BioNTech has since begun a trial on younger children, inoculating kids age 5 to 11. The company plans to expand the age range from there, testing the vaccine on children as young as 6 months-old. Data from these trials, however, is not expected to become available until late 2021. Moderna is currently conducting trials on those under 12 as well, and while their study is slated to last for 14 months, it's likely to conclude earlier. Johnson & Johnson—the third vaccine available in the United States—plans to trial its vaccine on children under 12 soon, too.
Ultimately, Dr. Fauci, predicts that all children will have access to vaccines by the start of 2022, and Dr. Brewer says this development will not only help further tame the pandemic but also continue a positive trend in the health of America's youngest populations. "We're in a very different place than we were 50 or 60 years ago in terms of childhood diseases because of vaccines—they've really altered the landscape of what it's like to be a child and the diseases that you had to run the gamut through before the vaccines existed, including polio, measles, encephalitis bordetella pertussis, and diptheria," he says. "It would be terrific if they could continue to benefit from the COVID-19 vaccine just like they have from other vaccines in the past."
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