HuffPost UK reader Elaine asked: “As we continue to vaccinate more and more adults, will that ‘push’ the virus more to our children?”
People in their mid-thirties are now being vaccinated as part of the UK’s drive to give all adults their first dose of the Covid-19 jab before the end of July. But what does this mean for the nation’s children? Will getting every adult jabbed simply push the virus on to kids in the next few months?
When Covid-19 first emerged at the start of 2020, children seemed less likely to be impacted by symptoms – and many were asymptomatic. However since then, new variants have emerged, including the so-called Kent and India variants, which do appear to impact kids more than previous mutations.
While case rates are currently pretty low in the UK, we know that rates are highest in those aged 10 to 19 years old, according to data from Public Health England (PHE). In contrast, the lowest case rates are among those aged 80 and above, most of whom should now be fully vaccinated with both doses.
There are concerns that the new variant circulating in the UK – B1617.2, which originated in India – is more transmissible than previous ones. And in Singapore, most schools are being shut from this week, Reuters reports, as the new variant appears to be impacting more children.
“Some of these mutations are much more virulent, and they seem to attack the younger children,” Singapore’s education minister Chan Chun Sing has said. None of the children infected with the new strain had become seriously ill, though a few had mild symptoms, he added.
Meanwhile, data from Bedford in the UK, where cases of the B1617.2 variant are rising, show case rates are highest in those aged 11- to 22-years-old, the Mirror reports.
So should we be worried?
Cases, hospitalisations and deaths have significantly reduced since the peak of the second wave after Christmas, which is obviously good news. However infections do appear to be more prevalent in younger age groups now.
“The age-related way in which the vaccination programme has been organised means that the average age of those potentially susceptible to infection will be getting lower and lower,” says Dr Stephen Griffin from University of Leeds’ School of Medicine.
We know children don’t tend to suffer with the virus as severely as adults do. However in rare cases, children can become very ill with complications from Covid and can also experience long-term symptoms that last for months.
With that in mind, Dr Griffin believes we need to be accelerating vaccination for children. The vaccines currently issued in the UK are suitable for different age groups: the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is suitable for people aged 16 and over, while the AstraZeneca/Oxford and Moderna vaccines are approved for over-18s.
“The resurgence of the virus last year and earlier in 2021 had a clear bias towards younger people in terms of the number of cases,” says Dr Griffin.
“This naturally included under 30s, adolescents and younger children, and it is accepted that schools can be both a site of outbreaks and a reservoir of infection, mirroring prevalence in the community as a whole.
“It was also clear that once schools returned in March, cases in young children accelerated, but this was thankfully blunted by school holidays.”
Experts agree that the vaccines offer the best path through this pandemic – and that vaccinating adults first was definitely the right move.
Dr Liz Whittaker, a clinical lecturer in infectious diseases and immunology at Imperial College London, tells HuffPost UK: “As we continue to vaccinate more and more of the adult population, there will be less community transmission which will protect children from infection.”
But some believe that vaccinating children should now be accelerated as a priority – especially as mask-wearing is no longer mandatory for pupils in schools and colleges in England. “We must ensure that [the vaccinations] are deployed to the maximum possible effect, and to the benefit of all,” says Dr Griffin. “We must consider children when organising our vaccine programmes.”
A number of trials have been ongoing involving those under 18. One such trial with the Pfizer jab has found the vaccine is safe and strongly protective among children as young as 12.
“We know from recent, well-run trials that the vaccines are safe to give to even relatively young primary school children,” says Dr Griffin, “and this should avoid the growing numbers of children that are developing long Covid, as well as the thankfully much smaller – but certainly not insignificant – number of children that become seriously unwell.”
It’s possible that a vaccine suitable for teens could be available by autumn 2020. However the World Health Organisation (WHO) has suggested that wealthier nations postpone plans to vaccinate young people and instead donate vaccines to low-income countries so they can vaccinate their adult populations.
Experts are still learning about Covid-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus. To keep up to date with health advice and cases in your area, visit gov.uk/coronavirus and nhs.uk.