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Covid-19 Won't End Before This Group Is Vaccinated: Disease Experts

As much of the nation awaits a turn for a shot, around a quarter of adults say they won't get one. That makes it even more critical that kids get the jab, say experts. But here's the catch.
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When Pfizer  (PFE)  applied in December for emergency approval of its Covid-19 vaccine in the U.S., a group of experts voted overwhelmingly to allow the shot. But the vote was not unanimous: Four of the 21 committee members rejected the proposal.

Dr. Archana Chatterjee, dean of the Chicago Medical School, was among the dissenters. Chatterjee believed clinical trial data proved the vaccine when given to adults was safe and effective. But she had one major hangup about the shot’s proposed use in the U.S.: She didn't think kids as young as 16 should get the jab. The data backing its use was just too thin.

But, as a pediatric infectious diseases specialist, Chatterjee also says data on kids will be critical to the nation's plan to achieve so-called herd immunity through vaccination.

"It’s not a theoretical question. We know, actually, that children might not get as sick as adults, but they can transmit the virus," Chatterjee told TheStreet in a recent phone interview, noting that around 22.4% of the U.S. population is under age 18.

"So, if you just do the math, if you want to have (about) 75% of the population vaccinated, you would have to vaccinate 100% of adults, which you know is impossible to do," Chatterjee said. "Vaccinating children will be part of the longer-term strategy of getting the pandemic under control. There’s no doubt in my mind about that."

Among adults, more than a quarter say they won't get the vaccine, according to new Census data. In fact, only around half of the adult Americans who haven't gotten the vaccine "definitely" plan to do so, according to the Census. Only around 3% of American adults are now fully vaccinated, completing both jabs. 

Another, expert, Zoë Hyde, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at the University of Western Australia, agrees: Vaccinating kids will be key to halting the outbreak.

"But there's another reason to vaccine children," said Hyde. "If we didn’t vaccinate children and teenagers, we’d see more cases in this age group, and more severe outcomes. We already know that children can be affected by a severe multisystem inflammatory syndrome, but we’d probably also see more cases of long Covid, too. Emerging evidence suggests long Covid has gone unrecognized in children, and like with the condition in adults, it may be a much bigger problem than thought."

Still, the clinical studies needed to get the shots in kids' arms will take time.

The vaccine by Moderna  (MRNA)  is approved for use only in adults age 18 and up. The one by Pfizer and BioNTech  (BNTX)  is allowed for 16-year-olds and up.

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Since their emergency approvals in December, both vaccine projects have begun enrolling teens and older kids, but the data will take time to come in. Also, neither has started enrolling very young kids for study. Moderna told TheStreet it hopes to have data for kids age 12 to 18 for its vaccine by some time in the spring. It also plans to start studies on kids age 6 months to 11 years "beginning in 2021," but didn't say when.

"The Company will share more information about the study in the future," said a spokesperson, noting that the goal for older kids is to have enough data by spring to support giving the shot to adolescents by the time the next school year starts in the fall. 

Pfizer, meanwhile, told TheStreet that "in the coming months, we intend to share the results from the 12-15 year old cohort in our Phase 3 trial and then in return begin a pediatric study in 5-11 year-olds."

But the company added that the while the fully enrolled the 12- to 15-year old cohort has 2,259 participants, "the protocol has not been finalized or approved by regulators." 

Johnson & Johnson  (JNJ) , which is now seeking emergency approval for its shot, too will likely roll out at first like the other two approved shots -- for older teens and up.

So, in short, children are still a ways away from getting the shot needed to prevent them from catching – and spreading – Covid.

For now, the American Academy of Pediatrics urges all adults and teens to get the shot as soon their age and risk group is offered the jab. The academy is also advocating for clinical trials to include younger children as an "urgent next step toward ending the spread of the virus."

“Research has shown the new vaccines to be remarkably effective,” said the group's president Dr. Lee Savio Beers in a statement last week. “It is critical that pediatric patients of all ages be included in trials as quickly as possible.”

But as new variants of the constantly mutating virus pop up and spread around the world, there's another risk of failing to vaccinate kids quickly.

"There is a risk that other concerning variants could arise if the virus is allowed to spread widely in children," said Hyde in an email to TheStreet on Sunday morning. "Human bodies are human bodies, regardless of their age or size. This is one reason why I advocate for zero Covid."

This story has been updated.