Vaccinating children for COVID could be key to achieving herd immunity

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As the Biden administration continues its push to vaccinate millions of Americans before COVID-19 mutates further, health experts and drug manufacturers have begun focusing their attention on inoculating children in the hopes of surpassing the herd immunity threshold for the virus.

“Hopefully by the time we get to the late spring, early summer we will have children being able to be vaccinated according to the FDA’s guidance,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said last week.

While children are less likely than adults to develop severe illness from COVID-19, they are known to contract and spread the disease asymptomatically. Fauci has estimated that the herd immunity threshold for COVID-19 is between 70 percent and 85 percent of the population, meaning that those vaccinated or exposed to the virus reaches a high enough level to prevent its further spread. Given that almost a quarter of the U.S. population is under the age of 18, achieving herd immunity will require that at least some children be vaccinated.

As of Feb. 1, over 31 million Americans, most over the age of 65, had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In the coming weeks, the vaccine rollout is expected to extend beyond health care workers and the elderly, yet neither of the two vaccines has yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for children. Pfizer’s vaccine has been cleared for people 16 years and older, while Moderna’s is approved for those 18 years or older.

Both companies have started trials for children as young as 12, but Moderna has struggled to find enough young participants. Yahoo News Medical Contributor Dr. Kavita Patel explains the need for trials in children younger than 18 and 16. “Many of the doses of vaccines that we use in a childhood age population are not as strong or are at a different dosage than what we might use in adults and especially the elderly,” Patel said. “Plus, we do need to make sure that the two-dose approach is still necessary.”

If those trials go well, the coronavirus vaccines will be tested in younger age groups.

“Over the next couple of months we will be doing trials in an age de-escalation manner,” Fauci said last week.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control has shown that children and adolescents are less likely than adults to become infected or have severe illness from COVID-19.

Patel stresses that vaccinating children is not just a matter achieving herd immunity, since some children do become sick and require medical care. As of Jan. 21, nearly 2.6 million U.S. children had tested positive for COVID-19, according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, with between 1.2 percent and 2.9 percent of that number requiring hospitalization.

The approval of COVID-19 vaccines for children could also help hasten Biden’s goal of reopening schools, but Patel cautions that children age 6 and under may need to wait till there’s more data from clinical trials.

Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID19, elementary school students walk to class to begin their school day in Godley, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Three rural school districts in Johnson County were among the first in Texas to head back to school for in person classes for students. (AP Photo/LM Otero)Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID19, elementary school students walk to class to begin their school day in Godley, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Three rural school districts in Johnson County were among the first in Texas to head back to school for in person classes for students. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID19, elementary school students walk to class to begin their school day in Godley, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Three rural school districts in Johnson County were among the first in Texas to head back to school for in person classes for students. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

“What we hope will happen is that enough people over the age of 16 will get the vaccine to create that herd immunity,” Patel said, adding, “I think 2021 would likely see a vaccine approved for ages 12 and above, maybe 8 or 6 and above, but not for the youngest age group [age 6 and under] until at most 2022. But again, that depends on what we’ve learned from the safety and efficacy in children.”

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Originally published February 1, 2021, 3:17 PM