The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 is safe and strongly effective for 12- to 15-year-olds, the companies announced on Wednesday—possibly accelerating the return to the classroom for millions of kids. In fact, the trial results show that the vaccine triggered robust immune responses that exceeded those seen in young adults.
U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German company BioNTech say they hope to start vaccinating this age group before the start of the next school year—meaning that school districts could start the year with their high schoolers and some middle schoolers mostly protected from the virus. Vaccinating children will be key to ending the pandemic and normalizing school operations.
It’ll be a “tight race” to get a sizable number of adolescents vaccinated by the start of the school year, but it’s an important goal, said Dr. Sara Bode, a primary care pediatrician who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on School Health.
While COVID-19 is less aggressive in children, their risk of serious illness or death is “not zero,” she said, especially as new, more contagious variants take root in the United States. And children can still transmit the disease to others.
Also, vaccinating children will make it easier for all schools to return to in-person instruction five days a week, she said. As of January, just 46 percent of schools with 8th grade classes nationwide offered full in-person teaching, and just 28 percent of 8th graders were attending classes full-time and in-person, according to recently released federal data.
“Without vaccination, if some children get COVID through community spread and then they bring it to school, then it’s a ripple effect,” Bode said, pointing to quarantine requirements where anyone who was exposed to the virus has to stay home for up to two weeks. “If we can include kids [in vaccination programs], it’s going to make it so much easier” for schools to operate.
In a growing number of states, high school juniors and seniors have become eligible for the vaccine and are starting to be inoculated against the coronavirus. Right now, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only one that’s approved for 16- and 17-year-olds. (The other approved vaccines in the United States, made by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, are available for ages 18 and up.)
The Food and Drug Administration now has to approve vaccination starting at age 12—a process that took about three weeks with the vaccines currently available for adults, the Associated Press reports. And once the vaccine is approved for adolescents, it will remain to be seen when states have enough supply of shots to let them get in line.
Even so, vaccination timelines for adults have been speeding up this spring as the United States has secured more doses. President Joe Biden announced this week that 90 percent of adults will be eligible to get vaccinated within the next three weeks. Nearly 30 percent of U.S. adults have already received at least one vaccine dose, according to the Washington Post.
In the meantime, Pfizer and BioNTech have started testing the COVID-19 vaccine in children ages 5 to 11. They plan to start testing children ages 2 to 5 next week, which will be followed by trials in children ages 6 months to 2 years.
“Across the globe, we are longing for a normal life. This is especially true for our children,” said Ugur Sahin, the CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, in a statement. “It is very important to enable them to get back to everyday school life and to meet friends and family while protecting them and their loved ones.”
Pfizer and BioNTech haven’t released detailed results from their trial yet, but experts have said the top-line results are encouraging. There were 2,260 U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 15 enrolled in the trial, and participants received two shots three weeks apart. Half received the vaccine, and the others received a placebo of saltwater.
The researchers recorded 18 cases of COVID-19 in the placebo group, and none in the vaccinated group. The children who were vaccinated produced high levels of antibodies, and experienced similar side effects as young adults ages 16 to 25. (The companies did not specify the side effects the 12- to 15-year-olds experienced, but common ones for adults are pain at the infection site, fatigue, and headaches.)
“This is certainly great preliminary news,” said Dr. Evan Anderson, an associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, in an email. The fact that the vaccine prevented 100 percent of coronavirus infections is “impressive,” he added.
“Obviously we all would like additional data and look forward to hearing the findings presented to the FDA and [the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices],” Anderson said.
Moderna has also been testing its vaccine in 12- to 17-year-olds, and results from that trial are expected in the coming weeks. Johnson & Johnson is also planning pediatric studies.
Vaccinating kids is key to ending the pandemic
This news comes the day after Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned of a sense of “impending doom” as the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continues to rise. The potential fourth wave of the pandemic seems fueled by the new variants and an easing of safety restrictions in some states.
School-age children, 5 to 17, account for a little less than 10 percent of new COVID-19 cases and make up 16.3 percent of the U.S. population. But in some states, teenagers have been the fastest-growing age group for new cases.
Experts say that schools will play a critical role in encouraging vaccinations among children. That may eventually result in mandates: So far, one large school system, the Los Angeles Unified school district, has indicated that it will require students to receive a COVID-19 vaccine to attend school in-person.
But parental hesitancy may be a big roadblock. A new study finds that more than a quarter of U.S. parents say they do not intend to vaccinate their kids against the coronavirus. Some parents told researchers they would rather limit their children’s exposure to the virus than rely on the safety of the vaccine.
“This is not a disease that is commonly severe in children—it’s not clear that parents perceive that their children are in that much risk,” Dr. Walter Orenstein, a professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, told Education Week in February.
Even so, Bode said many parents “desperately want” their kids to be back in classrooms full time and are eager for things to get back to normal.
Kids are ready, too. “If I could [get vaccinated], I would love to,” said Jasper Heitin, age 14. “It would make everything better. It would make me be able to see people I haven’t been able to see,” like his out-of-state relatives and more of his friends.
Right now, Jasper, who’s in 8th grade in New Jersey, is going into the classroom just twice a week for half the day. He’s eager to go back to school full-time.
“I think I’m pretty done with this, with virtual,” he said. “I don’t think I get anything out of it. It feels like a waste of time. I feel like I’m not learning anything—it’s hard for them to teach, and hard for us to learn anything.”
Being vaccinated will make it easier for life to go back to normal, Jasper said: “It’s hard being by yourself for a year.”
Meanwhile, in Takoma Park, Md., Courtney Groeneveld first heard about the Pfizer-BioNTech trial results via an all-caps text from her son: “MOM, THE PFIZER VACCINE IS GOOD FOR 12-YEAR-OLDS.”
Her son turns 12 on Sept. 1, and can’t wait to get vaccinated. He and his 8-year-old sister have been learning remotely all year, but Groeneveld plans to send them back to in-person school in the fall.
Being vaccinated will make her son—who has been nervous about COVID-19—feel more comfortable returning to the classroom, she said. And it will open up the door to their family finding a new normal.
“Having that kind of hope on the horizon and getting the kids back to school and their normal classroom routine is just going to make a huge difference in all of our lives,” Groeneveld said. “We’re looking forward to it.”