Since her school shut down last March, my 6-year-old has kept a running to-do list for post-pandemic life. Over a year in, and the list is several sheets of pink construction paper long, detailing her dreams for everything she’ll do safely and worry-free: from an airplane trip to see her grandparents, to a mask-free doughnut run. And with two vaccines on the table and more on the horizon, hope for a normal life finally feels within reach. But because we’re parents, we worry—and we have plenty of questions.
So to put our fears to rest and provide honest, evidence-based answers, I reached out to three medical experts with knowledge on these vaccines: Lisa M. Lee, Dr. Stacey Schultz-Cherry, and Dr. Mona Amin. Lee is a former official with the Centers for Disease Control and a research professor at Virginia Tech’s Population Health Sciences Department, and Dr. Schultz-Cherry is a member of the American Society for Microbiology and works with the Department of Infectious Diseases at St. Jude’s Research Hospital. Dr. Amin is a Board-certified pediatrician. Below, they took the time to answer our most pressing questions on the state of the COVID vaccine for kids.
Q: When will the vaccine be available to children?
Update: In May 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine for emergency use in kids as young as 12 years old. Vaccine trials are underway for younger children with no set date for use.
Dr. Schultz-Cherry: “It’s a great question. While we don’t know for certain, the vaccine companies are preparing for pediatric trials. They will start by enrolling older children, then school-aged kids, then toddlers, and then infants. It is critical that they evaluate dosage, frequency, and side effects for each group. Hopefully, children will start being vaccinated prior to the 2021-2022 school year.”
They will start by enrolling older children, then school-aged kids, then toddlers, and then infants. It is critical that they evaluate dosage, frequency, and side effects for each group.
Dr. Amin: “Once these vaccine trials show safety and efficacy, they will undergo approval from the Food and Drug Administration (likely emergency authorization similar to adults). This process takes time.
When they do become available, I imagine it will be similar to the vaccine administration for adults. Parents can bring their children to a vaccination administration site. These sites are important, as many of the vaccines need proper cold storage that many [pediatrician] offices may not be able to handle.”
Q: Some worry the vaccine process has been rushed, compromising safety. What assurances can you offer concerned parents?
Lee: “All vaccines undergo rigorous testing before approval, even in the midst of a public health emergency. The two vaccines that have been authorized were tested with over 60,000 people. First, scientists determine whether they are safe in a small number of people, then they determine the best dose, and then they enroll thousands of people to see how well it works. All of these studies are required for approval and were done with these two vaccines. So, the science was not rushed.
The part that helped us move quickly was that the government agreed to start manufacturing vaccines as soon as they looked promising, willing to risk that if they did not get approval, they would take the financial hit of destroying the doses and starting again with the next probable candidate. This meant that millions of doses were ready to ship as soon as they were approved.”
While it certainly seems like the vaccine was produced at ‘warp-speed,’ coronavirus vaccines have been in development since the first SARS outbreak in 2003. Almost 20 years!
Dr. Schultz-Cherry: “While it certainly seems like the vaccine was produced at ‘warp-speed,’ coronavirus vaccines have been in development since the first SARS outbreak in 2003. Almost 20 years! That is the importance of sustainable and consistent long-term funding. Without that, it would have been difficult to produce the vaccine within this time frame. Also important, the vaccine platforms used for the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine (adenovirus vectors, mRNA, nanoparticle or recombinant protein, etc.) have also been in development for almost a decade, in some cases. The vaccines are safe and effective.”
Q: What’s the harm in waiting to vaccinate kids against COVID-19?
Dr. Schultz-Cherry: “As a mother, I certainly appreciate the concern [over vaccine safety]. However, I am more worried about the unknown short and long-term consequences of the virus in children. We have no idea how this infection, even if it causes mild to no disease, will impact our kids in the long run. Get the vaccine.”
We have no idea how this infection, even if it causes mild to no disease, will impact our kids in the long run. Get the vaccine.
Lee: “The vaccine will work best when at least 75 to 85 percent of the population is immunized. While children are less likely to become sick when they get COVID-19, people of all ages have died. Importantly, if children get the virus, they can spread it even if they have no symptoms. This means they could infect someone who is vulnerable: a parent, grandparent, sibling, or classmate.”
Q: What can you tell us about side effects of the vaccine?
Dr. Amin: “We need more research in children to better answer this question. Why? The child’s immune system is more robust and different than that of an adult, so we are unsure if they will even have side effects—and what those would be… We will need more information for how this vaccine plays out for our children.”
The COVID-19 vaccines have had an excellent safety profile in the first six months. With most vaccines, the side effects we see happen within the first couple of months.
Lee: “The COVID-19 vaccines have had an excellent safety profile in the first six months. With most vaccines, the side effects we see happen within the first couple of months. As with all vaccines, CDC and FDA will continue to follow any adverse events through a number of follow-up systems.”
Dr. Schultz-Cherry: “The vaccines are proving safe and effective. As for long-term effects? Prevention of SARS-CoV-2 infection.”
Q: Once available, will the COVID vaccine be mandatory for school enrollment?
Dr. Amin: “I think there may be some option not to vaccinate; however, vaccination for those eligible to get it will be highly encouraged. As this is a new vaccine, I don’t believe mandates will be possible. These children may have to do homeschooling or other precautions such as continued mask-wearing in classrooms, based on the regulations by school administrators.”