Clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines are underway, and they're finally starting to include children. Here's what parents should know about the vaccine's safety, effectiveness, and availability for kids.

By Nicole Harris
Updated May 10, 2021
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After months of struggling through virtual schooling, telecommuting, and social distancing, parents finally have a piece of good news: COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out across the country. Three vaccine candidates (Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson) have received emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

On May 10, the Pfizer vaccine was approved for children 12 and up, which makes it available to high schoolers and some middle schoolers. Additionally, Pfizer plans to apply for emergency use authorization for kids ages 2 to 11 in September, according to The New York Times. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson can currently be given to anyone over 18 years old.

Assuming all goes well with this vaccine roll-out, younger toddlers and infants will probably next in line to get vaccinated. Pfizer and Moderna are conducting clinical trials on children as young as 6 months old (with parental consent), and they're hoping to have early safety results later this year.

Here's everything parents need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine and kids.

Pediatric Trials for COVID-19 Vaccines

When clinical trials first began, children were largely excluded, which is why many haven't received COVID-19 vaccine approval yet. The exclusion was partly for ethical reasons because kids can't fully comprehend and consent to the trials. Also, children have different bodies and immune systems than adults, so experts want to understand safety risks thoroughly before undergoing pediatric testing, says Christine Turley, M.D., Pediatrics Specialist and vice chair of research at Atrium Health Levine Children's.

Now that researchers know more about the COVID-19 vaccine, pediatric clinical trials are finally underway. Both Moderna and Pfizer began pediatric trials for children 6 months to less than 12 years old. Additionally, Johnson & Johnson announced pediatric testing plans for children 12 and older, which will be followed by tests involving newborns and adolescents. Experts hope to see results in the next few months.

parents with little girl getting vaccinated, everyone wearing face masks
Credit: Getty Images

Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Safe for Kids?

We're still learning the effects of a COVID-19 vaccine on kids because of their initial exclusion from clinical trials. But researchers haven't seen any red flags in clinical trials as they thoroughly evaluate the dosage, side effects, frequency, and other important elements. Experts understand that children have different immune systems and body functions than adults, and they only approve a pediatric vaccine if they're absolutely sure of its safety.

Even so, some parents worry about the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines, since they received approval in record time. But Dr. Turley stresses that all safety procedures have been properly followed in the clinical trials, and only the administrative components have been sped up. "The FDA worked closely with vaccine experts to study a vaccine design for COVID-19," she says. "Trial design usually takes a long time, which contributes to a long time for vaccine approval, but this was all discussed before we even had a candidate."

When COVID-19 vaccines receive FDA approval for kids, you shouldn't fear getting one, stresses Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network and co-investigator on the vaccine trials. "Do not be fearful of the vaccine if you are recommended to get it, as risk of infection may outweigh any risks from the vaccine," she says. Widespread vaccination will help stop COVID-19 in its tracks, letting everyone get back to life as we knew it. 

Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Effective?

So far, early data on COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness in kids looks promising. On March 31, Pfizer announced that its vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing illness in 12- to 15-year-olds and, on May 10, received emergency use authorization for this age group.

Both Pfizer and Moderna require two doses (Pfizer's second dose is given three weeks after the first one, while Moderna's is given four weeks afterward). Research shows that the first dose is about 50 percent effective against the coronavirus in adults. The second dose increases the efficiency to about 94 or 95 percent—but only after your immune system kicks in (about two weeks after the second dose).

Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, on the other hand, requires only one dose. It's about 72 percent effective against the coronavirus in America, but it's shown to protect against severe forms of illness and death. (Note: After a temporary pause by the CDC, Johnson & Johnson is back on the market with a warning about a rare blood clotting condition linked to the vaccine).

Should My Child Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Parents can weigh the pros and cons of the vaccine, but when your kids are eligible, experts stress the importance of getting it. Kids generally have been spared from the worst of the coronavirus, but about 14 percent of COVID-19 cases are in pediatric patients, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Several kids have died from the virus, and others have gotten a mysterious and deadly illness called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C)

What's more, children can easily pass COVID-19 to parents, grandparents, and those with underlying health issues who might suffer more severe consequences. "We can't get community immunity until we know that known carriers are protected," says Dr. Turley. If majority of the population does not get vaccinated, "it will be harder to stop the spread of COVID-19" in America, adds Dr. Parikh.

For the same reason, it's also vital for caregivers and relatives of children to receive the vaccine. "If your child goes to school, parents and grandparents should take the vaccine to protect themselves, especially if you fall into one of those high-risk groups," says Dr. Parikh. "We know children can transmit the infection asymptomatically."