Clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccine candidates are underway, but most of them don't include children. When will a coronavirus vaccine be available for kids, and should your child get one? We spoke with experts to learn more.

By Nicole Harris
Updated November 20, 2020
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After months of struggling through virtual schooling, telecommuting, and social distancing, parents finally have a piece of good news: A COVID-19 vaccine will likely get emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the end of the year. Clinical trials look promising for several vaccine candidates, including Moderna and Pfizer. However, children have largely been excluded from the testing, which raises questions about when they'll actually be able to get vaccinated. Here's everything parents need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine and kids.

Where Does America Stand on Vaccine Trials?

With support from the White House’s Operation Warp Speed, which seeks to deliver 300 million doses of a vaccine by January 2021, researchers have been working to develop a vaccine in record time. Two candidates, Moderna and Pfizer, are the current frontrunners in the race against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. They’re both in phase 3 clinical trials—meaning they're being tested on hundreds or thousands of people—and they’ve been shown to be about 95 percent effective.

Pfizer, working with German company BioNTech, now plans to apply for “emergency use authorization” from the FDA. If it's granted, which could take a few weeks, the vaccine would likely be approved for high-risk individuals, such as healthcare workers and the elderly. Pending more studies and research, it could get final approval several months later, making it available to the general public.

Other vaccine candidates are also hoping to get emergency use authorization by Christmas, with final FDA approval several months later, says Christine Turley, M.D., Pediatrics Specialist and vice chair of research at Atrium Health Levine Children’s.

Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Safe for Kids?

Nobody knows the effects of a COVID-19 vaccine on kids yet. Pfizer was the first company to include children (ages 12 and up) in clinical trials, but most other vaccine candidates haven’t done so. This is actually pretty common. “When testing vaccines, we usually start with adults and work down to children to establish safety data,” says Dr. Turley. 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 more vaccine candidates are preparing for pediatric trials. “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 sometime in 2021.

When Will a COVID-19 Vaccine Be Available for Children?

We don’t know for sure when a vaccine will be available for children. Some experts predict a vaccine won't be approved for pediatric use until after the start of the 2021-2022 school year. They claim that more testing and research must be done first. On the other hand, infectious disease doctor Anthony Fauci told ABC News that "there is no reason not to believe that [a vaccine] wouldn't be available simultaneously for adults and children." 

Adding to the complexity, some people 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 10 percent of COVID-19 cases are in pediatric patients, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. More than 120 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. 

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