On October 26th, a panel of experts from the US FDA approved recommendedto approve the Covid vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer for 5 to 11 year olds. The decision now rests with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Vaccination Advisory Board, which meets this week.
If this body is also given the go-ahead, according to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), vaccination of millions of children could begin in early November. Most could be fully immunized by the Christmas holidays.
Not all countries are going the same way as the US: some like the UK are using single doses for 12 to 15 year olds. This is because of concerns about myocarditis, which has occurred in rare cases after the second BioNTech Pfizer vaccination, mainly in adolescent males. Other countries have so far withheld vaccinations for children.
Vaccinating Children: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?
If it is true that younger children are at a much lower risk of developing COVID-19, is it really necessary to vaccinate them? What are the benefits for the individual child and what are they for society in general?
“The most important thing is that the bar is very high when we vaccinate people who are generally healthy and children who are generally healthy,” says pediatrician Dean Blumberg, who studies infectious diseases at the University of California Davis is specialized. “There must clearly be a benefit to the individual child.”
Because of this, the boards weigh a number of complicated factors. What is the probability that a child will be infected with SARS-Cov-2? How much protection does a vaccine offer? What symptoms and complications can children experience when they are vaccinated? With all of these questions in mind, says Blumberg, “the benefits for this age group clearly outweigh the risks.”
Pfizer study: effectiveness of just under 91 percent
In fact, the study data and analysis have shown that vaccinating children can prevent serious infections and deaths in almost all cases, and with very little risk. In a Pfizer study that began in March 2021, two-thirds of 2,250 children were vaccinated with two real doses of the vaccine, while the others received a placebo. The vaccinations were given 21 days apart, at a lower dose than in the elderly, namely one third of the amount of the vaccine.
In the study, three vaccinated children contracted COVID-19, while there were 16 cases in the placebo group. This corresponds to an effectiveness of almost 91 percent. The side effects were typical and mostly mild. The heart inflammation observed in adolescents, which is considered a very rare side effect, in most cases as well treatable and heals well, did not occur once. However, the sample of 2,300 children was too small to determine whether it might not happen in rare cases.
The second mRNA vaccine manufacturer Moderna announced last weekthat his studies with children under the age of 12 also show good results. Here, the vaccinated subjects received two syringes with half the adult dose at an interval of 28 days. However, this vaccine will not be discussed at the FDA meeting because Moderna has not yet submitted an application for approval.
So far without any significant complications
The bottom line is that these studies have shown that vaccinations reduce the likelihood of symptomatic COVID-19 infection and hospitalization in children as well as in adults – and so far without any significant complications. Vaccination is not just about individual benefit, although it is of course important. On a broader level, vaccinating children can have an impact on the course of the pandemic itself, says Maimuna Majumder of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
“What makes school-age children – especially younger children – unique is not only the number of contacts they make per day, but also the heterogeneity of the age groups among these contacts,” says the scientist, who researches in the field of computer-aided epidemiology. The children interacted not only “with their peers in school and in extracurricular activities, but also with older carers and their families”. Therefore, “we expect that widespread vaccination of younger school-age children would help curb transmission in the coming months.”
Because vaccinations not only prevent most hospital stays due to COVID-19, they also slow the spread of the disease. Studies in Israel and the USA suggest that vaccination reduces the viral load of people with the disease, which in turn reduces transmission.
That’s important because, according to one study in the specialist journal Nature Children and adolescents account for 13 percent of the documented Covid cases. The age group of 5 to 11 year olds is the largest remaining group of unvaccinated people in the United States, with approximately 28 million children. That’s eight percent of the total population. If they were all vaccinated, the overall vaccination rate in the US could increase from 58 to 66 percent and the country could move closer to possible herd immunity.