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When Will COVID-19 Vaccines Be Available for Children and Teenagers?

Editor, TRANSFIN.
Feb 23, 2021 12:17 PM 4 min read
Editorial

In the push to inoculate the world against the coronavirus, one demographic that has received relatively limited focus has been that of children and adolescents. Essentially, those below 21.

Off the top, this seems logical. Firstly, except for pediatric diseases, drugs and vaccines are tested on adults first before moving down the age brackets. And secondly, viruses like COVID-19 affect older people disproportionately. For instance in the US, the worst-affected country by the pandemic, less than 1% of COVID-caused deaths have been among people younger than 21. In India, about 1% of fatalities occurred in those below 17. Even among these, the majority of cases have been among those with pre-existing conditions.

However, as the vaccination drive picks up steam, the race to ensure safe vaccines for children is accelerating too. Pfizer and Moderna have already begun clinical trials of their vaccines on children ages 12 and older. Oxford and AstraZeneca have announced that they too will begin testing their candidate on participants aged six to 17. Johnson & Johnson, Novovax and Covaxin are expected to kick-start their own trials soon.

Why is It Important to Vaccinate Children ASAP?

Obviously vaccinating children against any disease is crucial and requisite. The only reason pediatric trials began months after coronavirus vaccines for adults began rolling out was due to the age disparity in the pandemic’s toll. But while the mortality rate among kids and teens is in the low single-digits, it’s still not 0%.

But there are two more reasons why inoculating children is becoming increasingly important - and why it could determine when the pandemic could be declared as “over”.

 

One: Herd Immunity 

Herd immunity or community immunity is a stage of an epidemic/pandemic when a virus ceases to spread easily because enough people are immune to it. This can happen in two ways:

  1. A large chunk of the population contracts the disease and builds up an immune response to it. This was Sweden’s COVID policy, and some sero surveys suggest that pockets in India are approaching this “natural” immunity simply because so many people have been infected.
  2. Rampant vaccination. For the pandemic to end, scientists say that 70-90% of the population would have to be immunised against the virus. 

#2 is not an easy task in big countries like the US or India. But the scenario worsens when you consider other factors: 

  • many people don’t want to get vaccinated,
  • many have vulnerable immune systems that may not respond to the vaccine as planned, 
  • the efficacy of the vaccines in the market is 60-90%, and
  • newer variants of the coronavirus (such as the UK and South Africa ones) are far more contagious, lethal and may even require different vaccines altogether.

So the global vaccination drive is now a game of numbers and speed. It’s imperative to vaccinate as many people as possible in as little time. Considering that under-21s constitute a major chunk of the populace (especially in demographically young nations like India where they are nearly half the population), the success of this drive depends significantly on how soon a vaccine for children is cleared.

 

Two: Back to School

The pandemic may not have infected many children, but it has affected all of them.

As schools and colleges shut down, education moved online (advantage: edtech). This has meant major readjustments for hundreds of millions of students and parents - and it has affected many negatively. Distance learning requires high-speed internet, laptops and smartphones. It also needs quiet rooms and reliable electricity. These are in short supply in poorer sections of society, especially so in a low middle-income country like ours.

The fallout has not merely been infrastructural. Being shuttered in your room and glued to your screens all year long is far from healthy. In Britain, the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health has warned that leaving schools closed “risks scarring the life chances of a generation of young people”.

Indeed, the closure of schools and colleges has deprived students of physical activity, time with friends, access to healthy meals, physical and mental healthcare, and has reduced the availability of support for those with special needs.

Furthermore, even as schools in some countries have started - slowly and timidly - reopening, parents and students remain hesitant, with most preferring to continue the study-from-home experiment. Not particularly because it’s better but because it’s safer.

Vaccinating children against COVID-19 would be the most sure-shot way for the education sector to regain some level of normalcy.

 

Vaccines for Kids

The way adults and children react to diseases - including COVID-19 - can be different. As such, vaccinating children requires separate trials and studies before it can receive regulatory approvals. This could entail different dosages or tweaked dosage schedules.

Presently, the vaccine trials that have commenced testing on child participants expect results only after a few months. Moderna says it could have them around mid-2021. Bharat Biotech says, post regulatory greenlight, it could have a vaccine for those under 12 ready in three to four months.

Going forward, even with a vaccine for children, administering it may be a challenge. Especially in countries where anti-vaccine sentiments are relatively high. In the US, for example, one-third of adults say they don’t plan to get their children immunised. One way to circumvent such dangerous anti-science stances is if schools required students to get vaccinated to attend classes. This helped accelerate vaccination against chickenpox in the 1990s. But this might also force a backlash from indignant parents, unleash even more misinformation, and hurt the vaccination drive.

Fortunately, public faith in vaccines is high in India. So the hurdles confronting child vaccinations are majorly infrastructural in nature. That would involve ensuring adequate cold storage logistics, perfecting a distribution network that reaches every hamlet and hillock, and manufacturing enough doses. More on that here.

FIN.

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