Nearly half of all Americans have received at least one dose of the three available COVID-19 vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—a big milestone in the fight to end the coronavirus pandemic. But there’s still a major population that still hasn’t been vaccinated: children.
Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is only authorized for people age 16 and older, and the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available for those 18 and up. The reason: Researchers are still awaiting the results of clinical trials in young people.
In the meantime, there’s good news on the horizon: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reportedly days away from approving Pfizer’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15.
But what about children in the younger age groups? Here, doctors explain when kids under age 12 may be able to be vaccinated, plus why it’s crucial they get their jabs, too.
Why were children excluded from clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines in the first place?
Adults were prioritized because they were the most susceptible to severe illness, says Adam Keating, M.D., a pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic in Wooster, OH. But now that the vaccines have become widely available, children are next in line.
Young people were initially excluded from clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines because they are distinct enough from adults to warrant separate studies: They’re smaller and lighter, which impacts dose size, and because they’re still growing, their immune systems operate differently at each stage of childhood, says Allison Messina, M.D., chairman of the Division of Infectious Disease at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
“The older a child gets, the more their bodies are going to behave like a young adult,” Dr. Messina explains. That’s why older children, ages 12 and up, will be the second group to be cleared for vaccinations.
After that, the next group studied and approved will likely be school age children, from about 5 to 11 years old. Younger kids will require even more research, meaning they’ll probably be the last to receive approval.
When will kids be able to get COVID-19 vaccines?
Vaccine eligibility for 12- to 15-year-olds is imminent, both doctors say. On May 4, Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla said the FDA will soon authorize the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children in that age group.
The results of Pfizer’s clinical trial among children 12 to 15, released in late March, are promising: The company reported 100% efficacy against COVID-19 infections among 2,260 participants, with similar cold-like side effects to the ones adults have reported.
Younger kids will have to wait a little longer for eligibility. Anthony Fauci, M.D., the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said in April that he expects “kids of any age” to be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines by early 2022.
Pfizer could be on track to beat that estimation. The company plans to seek vaccine authorization for children ages 2 to 5 and 6 to 11 in September, followed by children six months to 2 years in late 2021.
Moderna, meanwhile, announced this month that its vaccine is 96% effective in people age 12 to 17, and it will seek FDA approval later this month; clinical trials with kids as young as six months are underway.
Johnson & Johnson has expanded its trials to adolescents age 12 to 17, with plans to study younger kids in the future. (The CDC and FDA recently recommended that use of Johnson & Johnson vaccine resume after a temporary pause.)
Why should children receive COVID-19 vaccines?
Children are less likely to get seriously sick from COVID-19, per the CDC—but that doesn’t mean they’re immune. Over 300 children have died from the novel coronavirus so far, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And kids now make up over 22% of new cases—just a year ago, they only accounted for only 3% of cases, NPR reports.
“Most of the time, this is not a severe disease for kids; some of the time, it is a devastating disease, and you don’t want that to be your child,” Dr. Messina says. “It doesn’t matter how rare a disease it is—when your child has it, it’s not rare anymore.”
Dr. Keating stresses that the vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective. "It’s important to tell parents that while the vaccine approval happened fast, it wasn’t rushed," he explains.
Getting kids vaccinated is also crucial to establishing herd immunity, both experts emphasize. The vaccines are not 100% effective, and even if most adults receive it, unvaccinated kids might still spread COVID-19 to their peers, parents, and anyone else they meet. The virus requires susceptible hosts to spread, and if more and more people are fully vaccinated, it won’t have anywhere left to go.
This article is accurate as of press time. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves and the scientific community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus develops, some of the information may have changed since it was last updated. While we aim to keep all of our stories up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.
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