As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout steadily steams ahead, one population is still left without one: children and adolescents.
Now, with months of vaccine clinical trial data under their belts, pharmaceutical companies are getting closer to offering the same protection for kids.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for ages 12-15 soon, with some reports indicating the approval could come in early May.
“With any medication trial, kids are seen as a vulnerable population because their immune systems are more naïve and extra safety measures are always taken,” says Terri Stillwell, M.D., M.P.H., pediatric infectious disease expert and associate hospital epidemiologist at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
“We’ve now administered millions of doses of vaccines, which clearly gives us a good baseline of overall safety data. As vaccine safety and efficacy becomes well established in adults, the same vaccines can safely be tested in younger children.”
Vaccine side effects are usually comparable between adults and kids, but researchers must test the new vaccine in children to know for sure whether it will generate the same immune response, Stillwell says.
Although severe COVID disease is still rare among pediatric populations, some children do develop more serious and life-threatening complications, including multi-system inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C. A growing number of states have reported MIS-C cases among kids, which causes severe inflammation in vital organs and tissues.
Children with underlying conditions are also at higher risk of severe disease and hospitalization.
“While rare, children across the country have gotten very sick or died from COVID complications,” Stillwell says. “Even one child is too many.”
Kids also make up nearly a fifth of the population, which means vaccinating them will be essential to obtaining herd immunity.
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“Even if they have mild COVID symptoms, children and teenagers can spread the coronavirus to more vulnerable groups,” Stillwell says.
“We will need vaccination among all age groups in order to truly control the pandemic. Without a pediatric vaccine, the virus will continue to circulate through communities.”
Pediatric vaccines will mean a quicker path to normal kid life as well. COVID exposures have disrupted in-person school where quarantines mean masses of students missing classes. Virus risks also interrupt activities like sports and extracurricular programs and milestones like prom and graduation.
Stillwell discusses what parents and families can expect to see for vaccines in younger groups over coming months.
COVID vaccines for teens 16 and over
In April, the Centers for Disease Control expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility from 18 and over to include ages 16 and 17.
Of the three vaccines authorized in the U.S., the Pfizer-BioNTech shot is currently the only one available for this population. Other drug companies will likely follow suit as they enter phase three of testing in clinical trials.