Children have fared better than adults in the coronavirus pandemic, a fact that makes the development of vaccines for them a unique effort in the annals of medical science.
Historically, pediatric vaccines have focused on killer childhood diseases, but the pandemic has thrown a curve into that thinking. While the virus has been a deadly force among older adults, it’s been shown to be mild in the young with deaths relatively minimal.
That’s sparked an emerging debate among scientists about how critical it is that children be immunized. Some say the case for inoculating kids is less pressing, given that their outcomes tend to be so much better. Worldwide, the rollout of vaccines has prioritized older people and others at risk because of their health or occupation.
“Vaccines for polio, diphtheria and meningitis were all geared to eliminate the most dangerous diseases in children,” said Michael Hefferon, an assistant professor in the pediatrics department at Queen’s University in Ontario. “We now have almost the opposite. It’s a disease of adults, and the older you get the more sinister it is. Therefore children are less relevant.”
Almost 3.2 million children have tested positive for Covid-19 in 49 states that report cases by age, according to a March 4 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. But at a time when more than a half-million Covid-related deaths have been reported in the U.S., only about 250 children have died in the 43 states that track mortality by age.
The debate comes as President Joe Biden is pressing for the return of all kindergarten through 8th-grade classes, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said even teachers don’t need to be vaccinated if certain rules are followed. Meanwhile, a study in the journal Pediatrics this month found that just 0.4% of 234,132 people tested in New York City schools from October to December were positive.
The question shouldn’t just be can you inoculate children safely and effectively, but also “why you’re doing it,” said Hefferon, who says some regulators may question the need for emergency use. “If you take it that grandma and grandpa are going to be vaccinated on a mass scale under present plans, why vaccinate children? That’s kind of a moral dilemma to be considered.”
Are you doing it for the kids, he asks, or for everyone else?