Now that two COVID-19 vaccines are being administered around the globe, families are already wondering what's next. Namely: when will my kids be able to become vaccinated?
It's a worthwhile question, considering more than 2 million pediatric cases of COVID-19 have been reported and more than 200 children have died, according to the Centres For Disease Control and Prevention. Of course, the rates of hospitalization and death are significantly lower than any other age group, but experts are still concerned.
"While the overall burden of COVID may be lower among children, preventable infections, hospitalization, and long-term sequelae and deaths are an important public health problem," Sara Oliver, a medical officer with the CDC, said this week. "Clinical trials to evaluate safety and immunogenicity of COVID vaccines in children are essential."
Do children even need a COVID vaccine?
It does seem that most kids are relatively unaffected by COVID – the total pediatric cases of COVID is extremely low – but the CDC has also acknowledged that there is likely a significant undercount due to many cases being mild. In fact, the actual case rates for children aged 5 to 17 years may be close to those for ages 18 to 49.
Pediatricians are also concerned about a rare but serious condition linked to COVID-19 known as multi system inflammatory syndrome in children. At least 1,659 cases have been reported nationwide, and 26 children have died from it.
"The pediatric burden of disease is not as high as it is in older adults, but it still is significant," Dr. Emily Erbelding, a director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a recent CDC meeting. "There's a disproportionate burden among children in minority communities, and there's both direct and indirect effects to children and all of society. This burden will continue if we don't vaccinate and we just wait for herd immunity to occur over time."
Why isn't a COVID vaccine available to children yet?
Children's immune systems are not the same as those in adults – and immune responses can be different at different pediatric stages. Because of that, studies need to examine more specific age groups in youth populations, which is also why impending trials plan to segment infants and young children from older kids and teenagers.
What ages has the vaccine been approved for?
Pfizer's vaccine has already been authorized for people as young as 16 years old – it's so far the only COVID vaccination available to anyone in the youth population. The Moderna shot, however, is only authorized for those 18 and older.
When will eligible teens, 16 years and up, be able to receive their vaccine?
Because the vaccine is being rolled out on a needs basis – with first doses being administered to frontline health care workers, essential workers, and those in higher age groups, starting with those 75 years and older – teens in the eligible age bracket will be in the final group to receive it. Parents of these teens can expect to receive their shots first, with the earliest estimates of availability being in spring 2021.
The only exceptions to this will be individuals 16 and up with high-risk health conditions as well as individuals 16 and up who are essential workers. They may have the opportunity to get the vaccine sooner.
When can we expect a vaccine for infants, kids, and younger teens, ages 0 to 15?
The best case prediction is that a full pediatric vaccine could be available by late 2021, but it depends entirely on the ramp-up and success of trials – both in safety and efficacy. Then, just like the initial COVID vaccines, it will need to be reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration, ideally authorized for emergency use, and then mass-produced and distributed.
Pfizer recently announced that its trial in adolescents ages 12 to 15 is fully enrolled with more than 2,200 children and already underway. Following this initial recruitment, Pfizer has said it plans to enroll children aged 5 to 11 later this year.
"Moving below 12 years of age will require a new study and potentially a modified formulation or dosing schedule. We'll be able to finalize those plans more so when we have data from the 12-to-15-year-old cohort," Keanna Ghazvini, a spokesperson for Pfizer, said in a statement.
Moderna's clinical trials for 12 to 17-year-olds began in mid-December, but the company is struggling to enroll enough of the 3,000 volunteer participants needed to complete the 13-month study. (Parents interested in having their child participate can check eligibility and sign up on Moderna's site.) Moderna's CEO Stephane Bancel has said the company doesn't anticipate clinical data until 2022.