“Sparks make everything better,” said Marisol Gerardo, jumping from an exam table at Duke University to make way for his sister Alejandra.
Researchers in the United States and abroad are starting to test younger and younger children to make sure COVID-19 vaccines are safe and work for every age. The first vaccines go to the adults most at risk from the coronavirus, but ending the pandemic will also require vaccinating children.
“Children should get vaccinated,” Marisol told The Associated Press this week after the sisters participated in Pfizer’s new study of children under 12. “So that everything is a little more normal. She can’t wait to spend a sleepover with friends again.
In the United States, testing in adolescents is the most advanced so far: Pfizer and Moderna plan to publish results soon showing how two doses of their vaccines worked in those 12 and older. Pfizer is currently authorized for use from the age of 16; Moderna is intended for people aged 18 and over.
But young children may need different doses than adolescents and adults. Moderna recently started a study similar to Pfizer’s new trial, as the two companies research the right dosage of each injection for each age group as they strive to vaccinate babies as young as 6 months old.
Last month in Britain, AstraZeneca began a study of its vaccine in children aged 6 to 17. Johnson & Johnson are planning their own pediatric studies. And in China, Sinovac recently announced that it has submitted preliminary data to Chinese regulators showing that its vaccine is safe in children as young as 3 years old.
Obtaining this data, for all vaccines being deployed, is critical because countries must immunize children to achieve herd immunity, noted Dr Emmanuel “Chip” Walter, pediatric and vaccine specialist from Duke, who is involved in the conduct of the Pfizer study.
Most of the COVID-19 vaccines used around the world were first studied in tens of thousands of adults. Studies in children don’t need to be so large: researchers have information about the safety of these studies and the subsequent vaccinations of millions of adults.
And because childhood infection rates are so low – they account for about 13% of documented COVID-19 cases in the United States – the primary focus of pediatric studies is not to count the number of illnesses. Instead, the researchers are measuring whether the vaccines boost the immune system in young people the way they do in adults – suggesting they will offer similar protection.
Proving this is important because while children are much less likely than adults to become seriously ill, at least 268 have died from COVID-19 in the United States alone and more than 13,500 have been hospitalized, according to an American Academy tally. of Pediatrics. That’s more than dying from the flu in an average year. In addition, a small number have developed severe inflammatory disease linked to the coronavirus.
Besides their own health risks, questions remain about how easily children can spread the virus, which has complicated efforts to reopen schools.
Earlier this month, Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s leading infectious disease specialist, told Congress he expected high school kids to likely start getting vaccinated in the fall. Elementary school students, he said, may not be eligible until early 2022.
In North Carolina, Marisol and Alejandra made their own choice to volunteer after their parents explained the opportunity, said their mother, Dr Susanna Naggie, infectious disease specialist at Duke. Long before the pandemic, she and her husband, emergency physician Dr Charles Gerardo, regularly discussed their own research projects with the girls.
In the first phase of the Pfizer study, a small number of children are given different doses of the vaccine as scientists determine the best dosage to test in several thousand children in the next phase.
“We really trust the research process and understand that they may be given a dose that doesn’t work at all but may have side effects,” Naggie said, describing the decision making parents need to make when making the decision. registration of their children.
But the 9-year-olds have some understanding of the devastation of the pandemic and “it’s good to be part of something where it’s not just about yourself but learning,” Naggie added. “They worry about other people and I think that’s something that really struck them.”
For Marisol, the only part that was “a little scary and scary” was having to give a blood sample first.
The vaccination itself was “really easy. If you stay seated while shooting it will be easy, ”she said.