The COVID-19 Vaccine and Kids: Everything Parents Need to Know
Clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines are underway, and they're just beginning to include children. When will a coronavirus vaccine be available for kids, and should your child get one? We spoke with experts to learn more.
After months of struggling through virtual schooling, telecommuting, and social distancing, parents finally have a piece of good news: COVID-19 vaccines are finally being rolled out across the country. Two vaccine candidates (Moderna and Pfizer) have received emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and they're about 95 percent effective against COVID-19.
Even so, children have largely been excluded from vaccine clinical trials, which raises questions about when they'll actually be able to get vaccinated. Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is hopeful that coronavirus vaccination may be available to kids as young as first graders in the next few months, but it largely depends on testing currently being conducted.
Here's everything parents need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine and kids.
Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Safe for Kids?
Nobody knows the effects of a COVID-19 vaccine on kids because of their exclusion from clinical trials. Pfizer has been approved for those 16 and up, while Moderna has received authorization for those 18 and older.
Exclusion of kids from trials is actually pretty common. "When testing vaccines, we usually start with adults and work down to children to establish safety data," says Christine Turley, M.D., Pediatrics Specialist and vice chair of research at Atrium Health Levine Children's. She cites ethical issues because children can't fully consent. Also, thanks to their still-developing brains, children have a more difficult time understanding potential consequences. "We want to make sure there aren't hidden risks for children. We're balancing the risks and benefits against what is ethically acceptable," explains Dr. Turley.
The good news is that the FDA has been compiling safety and efficacy data, and vaccine candidates are preparing for pediatric trials. Indeed, Pfizer was the first company to include children (ages 12 to 15) in clinical trials, and we'll hopefully see results in the next few months. They're planning subsequent trials for kids ages 5-11 year olds, while Moderna is also including children in testing this year.
"They'll start by enrolling older children, then school-aged kids, then toddlers, then infants. That's because the risks for all of those children are different," explains Dr. Turley. With each age group, researchers will evaluate dosage, frequency, side effects, and other elements. Hopefully, they'll have a better understanding of the vaccine's safety for children soon.
When Will a COVID-19 Vaccine Be Available for Children?
We don't know for sure when a vaccine will be available for children. In a February 11 interview with ProPublica, Dr. Fauci said that if upcoming trials are successful, the vaccine may be available to those in first grade and older by the start of the 2021-2022 school year. "We're in the process of starting clinical trials in what we call age de-escalation, where you do a clinical trial with people 16 to 12, then 12 to 9, then 9 to 6," Fauci told ProPublica.
Still, some experts want trials to speed up, because they think it's unethical to make kids wait for the vaccine. Children themselves bear a burden from COVID-19, with school closures and limited social interactions, says Dr. Turley. Vaccines could return things back to normal sooner, relieving some of the physical, mental, and psychological effects of the pandemic.
For now, the public must wait for FDA recommendations based on current trials. Experts understand that children have different immune systems and body functions than adults. They don’t want to approve a pediatric vaccine until they’re sure of its safety.
Should My Child Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?
Parents can weigh the pros and cons of the vaccine, but if proven safe for children, experts stress the importance of getting it. Kids generally have been spared from the worst of the coronavirus, but about 12.9 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 Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network and co-investigator on the vaccine trials.
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.”
In the meantime, make sure to get vaccinated against the annual flu. Receiving routine vaccinations is important to keeping the community as healthy as possible.