The Pfizer BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is extremely effective in adolescents ages 12 to 15, perhaps even more effective than it is in adults, the companies reported on Wednesday. No symptomatic infections were found in children who received the vaccine in a recent clinical study. The children showed strong antibody reactions and did not show any serious side effects.
The results, if persistent, could accelerate the return to normal for millions of American families. Depending on government approval, vaccinations for middle school, high school and elementary school children might start not long before the start of the next school year.
The companies announced the results in a press release that did not include detailed data from the study that had not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal. Still, the news was praised and excited by experts.
“Oh my god, I’m so happy to see this – it’s amazing,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University. If the vaccine performance was A-plus in adults, the results in children were A-plus-plus.
The good news comes even if the country sees a renewed surge in infections and health officials again urge Americans to follow precautions and get vaccinated. On Monday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said rising cases left her feeling of “impending doom” while President Biden urged state and local officials to reinstate mask mandates.
Vaccination efforts are accelerating across the country. By Tuesday, 29 percent of Americans had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 16 percent had been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC
But the country cannot hope to achieve herd immunity – the point where immunity becomes so widespread that the coronavirus is slowing its passage through the population – without vaccinating the youngest Americans as well, some experts say. Children under the age of 18 make up approximately 23 percent of the population in the United States.
“The sooner we can get vaccines against as many people as possible, regardless of their age, the sooner we will feel like we are ending this pandemic for good,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University in Washington.
Data from Israel suggest that vaccination in adults alone can significantly reduce the number of cases. “However, in order to reach the herd immunity threshold in the long term, we need to vaccinate children,” she said.
The study included 2,260 adolescents aged 12 to 15 years. The children received two doses of the vaccine three weeks apart – the same amounts and the same schedule as for adults – or a placebo with salt water.
The researchers registered 18 cases of symptomatic coronavirus infection in the placebo group and none among the children who received the vaccine. However, the low number of infections makes it difficult to accurately determine the effectiveness of the vaccine in the general population, said Dr. Rasmussen.
“But obviously it looks good for the vaccine if there are no Covid cases among the vaccinated people,” she added.
The adolescents who received the vaccine produced, on average, many more antibodies than those aged 16-25 in a previous study. The children experienced the same minor side effects as older participants, although the companies refused to be more specific.
March 31, 2021, 9:45 a.m. ET
Dr. Iwasaki said she expected antibody levels in teenagers to be comparable to those in young adults. “But they get even better readings from the vaccines,” she said. “That is really unbelievable.”
She and other experts warned that the vaccine may be less effective in children and adults against some of the variants that have come into circulation in the United States.
Pfizer and BioNTech started a clinical trial of the vaccine in children under the age of 12 just last week, and started vaccinating children ages 5 to 11. Scientists at the company plan to test the vaccine in even younger children ages 2 to 5 next week, followed by trials in children ages 6 months to 2 years.
Results from this three-phase study are expected in the second half of the year, and the companies hope to make the vaccine available to children under the age of 12 early next year.
“We share the urgency to expand the use of our vaccine to wider populations and are encouraged by data from clinical trials in adolescents 12-15 years of age,” said Albert Bourla, Pfizer chairman and CEO, in a statement.
Moderna has also tested its vaccine in children. Results of a study in adolescents aged 12 to 17 years are expected in the next few weeks and in children aged 6 months to 12 years in the second half of this year.
AstraZeneca started testing its vaccine in children 6 months and older last month, and Johnson & Johnson has announced that it will wait for the results of studies in older children before testing the vaccine in children under the age of 12.
Some parents have stated that they are reluctant to immunize their children because the risk of the virus is low. Children account for less than 1 percent of deaths from Covid-19, but about 2 percent of children with the disease require hospital care.
The new results may not affect all of these parents, but they can reassure parents who have been wary of vaccines, said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“While I don’t think we have to wait for the children to be vaccinated to fully reopen schools, the ability to vaccinate children can help some families feel more secure when they return to school,” said they.
Pfizer and BioNTech plan to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for an emergency approval change for their vaccine in hopes of starting vaccinating older children before the start of the next school year. The companies also plan to submit their data for review and publication in a scientific journal.
You will monitor participants for two years after the second dose to assess the long-term safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. Vaccine side effects usually appear within the first six weeks, said Dr. Kristin Oliver, pediatrician and vaccine expert at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “Even so, it is good to know that security surveillance is continuing,” she said.
The CDC recommends that people do not receive any other vaccines for two weeks before and after receiving the two doses of the coronavirus vaccine.
But kids are getting more vaccines than ever before in the few weeks leading up to the school year, according to Dr. Oliver. Therefore, pediatricians and parents should try to get these other vaccinations earlier than usual.
The coronavirus vaccines should ideally be given by pediatricians with extensive experience immunizing children, added Dr. Oliver added. “Now is the time to plan how this rollout will take place in this age group,” she said.