With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) poised to recommend Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for kids aged 5-11 this week, experts say vaccinating kids isn’t a silver bullet that will end the pandemic.
Both booster vaccines and children’s vaccines have generated substantial debate during their approval processes, and both will offer some benefits to millions of Americans, according to most medical experts. But neither will do as much to eradicate COVID-19 as simply continuing to vaccinate unvaccinated adults, doctors say.
NEW: Pfizer vaccine recommended for approval in kids by FDA Advisory Committee.
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“What’s the driver of the pandemic going to be in America over the coming months? It’s going to be the unvaccinated because it has been all summer, and that will remain the case and nothing is going to change,” Dr. John Moore, professor of microbiology and immunology at Cornell University told the Daily Caller.
“Vaccinating children is important to the children who want to be vaccinated, but it’s not as important overall as getting more vaccine into the unvaccinated.”
Pfizer’s vaccine for young kids — one-third the dose of that for individuals aged 12 and up — is shown to offer high levels of protection with similar side effects to the shot for older people, and is likely to save hundreds of kids lives over time and slow community transmission. But unvaccinated adults continue to make up the majority of new COVID-19 deaths in the United States, and just 172 kids aged 5-11 have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to the CDC.
Of the roughly 370,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States in 2021, less than 10,000 have been of vaccinated people, according to the CDC.
“The impact of the pandemic is largely determined by the amount of immunity that exists in populations at high risk for hospitalization and death. Thus, vaccinations in high risk groups are the most important to encourage,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “However, it is also the case that a higher level of vaccination in all age groups will make spread of the virus more difficult and makes it less likely that an unvaccinated person encounters the virus.”
Others agreed that while kids are a low-risk group themselves, vaccinating them will help with things like curbing community transmission. “The bigger problem with kids getting infected is bringing the infection home and bringing it to other people. If they’ve got an elderly relative, grandparent who may or may not be vaccinated… it’s spreading it within classes and then you get failed tests, and then you get disruption [in schools],” said Moore.
“The way out of the pandemic (although SARS-CoV-2 will likely remain endemic and widespread) would be to vaccine (and revaccinate) as many people as possible. That includes children,” said Dr. Paulo Verardi, associate professor of virology and vaccinology at the University of Connecticut. “Likely the biggest effect of vaccinating younger children would be their important contribution to herd immunity by limiting transmission (helping to slow or break cycles of transmission), effectively helping to lower the reproduction number for the virus.”
About 2 million kids aged 5-11 have been infected with COVID-19 since the pandemic reached the United States, the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine expert committee said last week. While early research indicated that children do not spread COVID-19 as rapidly as adults, the highly-contagious delta variant has still made its way quickly from infected children to others in many instances.
That’s why it’s still important to get kids vaccinated, even if it won’t be a magic fix that ends COVID-19 in the U.S., says University of California San Francisco professor of clinical medicine Dr. Monica Gandhi: “I do think vaccinating young children is important for three reasons: Although children <12 are at low risk of severe disease, we saw during delta that this risk is not zero in places with low rates of adult vaccination and protecting children at all costs from even a rare bad outcome with a safe vaccine is important.”
“Children live in communities with others (including older adults like grandparents) and getting them vaccinated will reduce transmission to others,” she continued. “some states right now are enforcing strict mask mandates for children both inside and outside (children are masking outside during school in both CA and OR for instance). The removal of all remaining restrictions for children in schools to go back to normal in these states (who follow CDC guidance for children and schools) will likely only occur after the ability of young children to get the vaccine.”
But even with those benefits, vaccinating kids is unlikely to be the major driver in a reduction in deaths. Dr. Marty Makary of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that the mortality rate for COVID-19 in kids without a pre-existing health condition is zero. (RELATED: Vaccinated Can Be As Contagious As Unvaccinated At Peak Of COVID-19 Infection: Yearlong Study)
“The parents who want to get their kids protected can do so, and many are doing so, but again, the driver of the pandemic is still the 75 million adults who refuse to take vaccines,” Moore said.
As for Gandhi, she said she will be getting her 11-year-old vaccinated when the time comes, but that isn’t the end-all-be-all of COVID-19. “I don’t think we need to vaccinate young children to get control of the delta variant in the US,” she said.