Next step in the hunt for the COVID-19 vaccine: testing injections in children
The global hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine for children is only just beginning – a late start that has some American pediatricians fearful of whether injections work for young children in time for the next school year.
The elderly may be the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, but ending the pandemic will also require immunizing children. Last week, Pfizer Inc. received approval to test its vaccine in American children as young as 12 years old, one of the few attempts in the world to begin exploring whether experimental vaccines intended for adults can also protect children. children.
“I thought to myself that the more tests they had to do, the faster they could put on a vaccine and the safer and healthier people could be,” said Katelyn Evans, 16, who became the first teenager to receive an injection. the Pfizer study at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Several candidate vaccines are in the final stages of studies in tens of thousands of adults, and scientists hope that the next few months will provide evidence that at least some of them are safe and effective enough for widespread use.
But when the first injections arrive, they are unlikely to be recommended for children. Vaccines can only be given to young people if they have been tested in their age group – a major obstacle to efforts to reopen schools and resume more normal activities that are essential to the well-being of families.
“The public doesn’t understand this,” said Dr Evan Anderson of Emory University, who has been pushing for pediatric testing of COVID-19 vaccines. Although he is encouraged by Pfizer’s study in adolescents, he finds it “very concerning” that children under the age of 12 will not be vaccinated by next fall.
Children make up about 10% of documented COVID-19 cases in the United States. And although children are much less likely than adults to become seriously ill, about 120 have died in the United States alone, according to a count from the American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s roughly the number of American children who die from the flu in an average year. In addition, a small number have developed severe inflammatory disease linked to the coronavirus.
Overall, Anderson says the impact of COVID-19 on children is greater than some other illnesses that require routine pediatric vaccinations.
Besides their own health risks, the question remains unanswered about how easily children can infect others. In a letter to federal health officials, the AAP cited recent evidence that people over the age of 10 can spread the virus as easily as adults.
Add in the missing school and other factors unique to children, and it is unethical “to allow children to bear great burdens during this pandemic but not have the opportunity to benefit from a vaccine”, wrote Dr Sara Goza, president of the academy of pediatrics.
Globally, pediatric studies emerge with hesitation. In China, Sinovac and SinoPharm have opened studies that can test children as young as 3 years old.
A British study of a vaccine by AstraZeneca allows a low dose to be tested in some children, but the company says it will not recruit young people until it has “sufficient” safety data in adults.
In the United States, Moderna Inc., Johnson & Johnson, and Novavax all hope to start pediatric research later this year, in different age groups.
This is essential, said Dr. Robert Frenck, who directs the Vaccine Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s.
“If we immunize adolescents – and potentially move on to younger children – we will effectively prevent these children from getting infected. But also, they don’t report the infection home to parents and grandparents, ”he said.
Frenck finds great interest in screening adolescents from Pfizer, with 90 families seeking more information in just a week after his team called for volunteers aged 16 and 17. Researchers plan to enroll young people aged 12 to 15 soon.
Katelyn, the volunteer from the suburbs of Cincinnati, does not know if she received a dummy vaccine or the real vaccine. But the high school student is thrilled to be part of the study. And with the science class still fresh, she figured out the researchers’ explanation of how Pfizer’s vaccine works – using a piece of genetic code to train the body to recognize if the coronavirus is present.
“I learned DNA and RNA and all that in biology in the first year. And I guess I didn’t really know, like, how that applied to the real world until now, ”she said.
It makes sense to start pediatric testing in adolescents and gradually decrease the age, Frenck said, because adolescents typically receive doses of other adult vaccines – and so far, with Pfizer’s injections, none Serious safety issue only emerged in testing in adults.
Assuming Pfizer’s vaccine proves effective in adults, Frenck said the key would be for the vaccine to boost adolescent immune systems in the same way – without different side effects. He said if all goes well, scientists may have an answer on the 12-and-over age group by spring.
But young children need their own tests. Anderson, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Healthcare in Atlanta, said these studies can be more complex because small children may need different doses or, due to their generally stronger immune systems, show different reactions to them. injections.
“It is very important for us to start the process because it will take some time to study in the right way,” he said.
AP video reporter Kathy Young contributed to this report.
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.