In our weekly news roundup: new movement towards Covid vaccines for young kids, feds boost heat policy, and more.
SIX MONTHS AFTER Pfizer and BioNTech began large trials of their Covid-19 vaccine in young children, the companies announced Monday that the shot had a “favorable safety profile” and provoked a strong immune response in kids aged 5 to 11.
The companies are yet to publish the full data. And although the reported antibody response suggests that the vaccine does protect against illness, the results of the trial — involving 2,268 participants — couldn’t provide direct evidence that the vaccine lowered incidence of Covid-19, because too few subjects got sick. “It’s not a lot to go on, but what we do have to go on looks great,” Kathleen Neuzil, who directs the University of Maryland’s Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health, told STAT.
The announcement raised hopes that the Food and Drug Administration will soon authorize the vaccine for kids aged 5 to 11, allowing them to join the roughly 280 million Americans 12 and up who have access to safe, highly effective Covid-19 vaccines. (Already, some parents are reportedly lying about their kids’ ages in order to get them shots.) If the time between the arrival of trial data and FDA authorization is similar to earlier trials, science journalist Apoorva Mandavilli wrote in The New York Times this week, “millions of elementary school students could begin to receive shots around Halloween.”
For months, experts have debated whether it makes sense to vaccinate young children against Covid-19, especially amid ongoing vaccine shortages in many poor countries. At issue is a delicate risk analysis. Authorized Covid-19 vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective, but they can have side effects. Meanwhile, severe complications from Covid-19 remain very rare in children. As Sara Talpos reported for Undark in April, for some experts, that risk-benefit calculus could suggest that widespread Covid-19 vaccination for healthy kids may not be warranted.
In the United Kingdom, such considerations have pushed regulators to move more slowly to vaccinate children 15 and younger. In early September, a British expert advisory panel concluded that, while “the benefits from vaccination are marginally greater than the potential known harms,” there was not yet sufficient evidence to merit offering Covid-19 vaccines to healthy 12 to 15 year-olds.
The British government has since opted to recommend a single dose to kids in that age bracket, in part because of the challenges posed by the highly infectious delta variant. And many experts remain convinced that childhood vaccination is vital to blunt the spread of a devastating virus — and to head off the rare events in which children do experience complications from Covid-19.
While Covid-19 vaccines for kids are making headlines, the bigger issue, perhaps, remains the global drop in routine childhood vaccination for diseases like measles and diphtheria. Even in the United States, pandemic-related disruptions in care have left many kids behind on those immunizations. “Frankly, a lot of the diseases that we vaccinate kids for are more severe in children than Covid,” pediatric infectious disease expert Sean O’Leary told NPR last month. “And so the last thing we want as we reenter the school year is outbreaks of these other vaccine-preventable diseases.”