Johnson & Johnson announced in February it will begin testing its vaccine in children, starting with kids age 12-18 years old first. They are following this immediately with enrolling younger children, including infants and newborns. The technology involved in these vaccines has already been around for years and demonstrated safety in kids and babies for other diseases.
AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford’s vaccine had also announced plans in February 2021 to enroll children 6-18, but this has just recently been paused as European regulatory agency reviews reports of rare side effects in adults.
When will kids actually be able to receive vaccines?
This will depend on whether the ongoing trials can show safety and efficacy of the vaccines then receive regulatory authorization. If all goes well, the vaccines for kids over age 12 may be available as soon as late summer. Kids younger than 12 may not have a vaccine available until late fall or winter at the soonest. Babies may have to wait even longer, into 2022.
What does this mean for getting kids back to school?
The question of when and how to open schools for kids is a pressing policy question, given that being away from school harms kids’ health and that they can still transmit a significant amount of infection, especially to the adults who would have to work in the schools. The CDC has provided guidelines for school openings that take into account regional transmission rates and safety measures (e.g. ventilation, masking, and distancing). Recommendations include vaccination for adult educators and staff. But both CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics note that vaccination of children is not necessary for school openings if other effective prevention strategies are in place.
How can I know these vaccines will be safe for children?
So far, the vaccines have been exceedingly safe in adults, with most side effects being mild and tolerable for the vast majority. It is not clear if the same will be true for children. There is, however, a well-established and rigorous process for approving childhood vaccinations, and COVID-19 vaccine trials will follow a similar path. With these large, well-designed trials that include thousands of children with close monitoring, we will be able to identify the risks and benefits.
Dharushana Muthulingam, M.D., M.S., is an infectious-disease physician and public-health researcher in St. Louis.