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Pfizer: COVID-19 vaccine protects kids as young as 12

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at the

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at the vaccine pod at BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha Hindu Temple on March 5 in Melville. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Long Island infectious disease experts on Wednesday said Pfizer's announcement that its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and protects kids as young as 12 is another step toward achieving herd immunity.

Most COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out worldwide are for adults who are at higher risk from the coronavirus. Pfizer’s vaccine is currently authorized for ages 16 and older. But vaccinating children of all ages will be critical to stopping the pandemic — and helping schools, at least the upper grades, start to look a little more normal after months of disruption.

"In order to stop the virus, we need to get to herd immunity, and last time I checked, children are part of our households," said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. Nachman added that she suspects the other available vaccines also will end up safe for children.

In a study of 2,260 U.S. volunteers ages 12 to 15, preliminary data showed there were no cases of COVID-19 among fully vaccinated adolescents compared to 18 cases among those given dummy shots, Pfizer reported.

Children represent about 13% of COVID-19 cases documented in the United States. And while children are far less likely than adults to get seriously ill, at least 268 have died from COVID-19 in the United States, and more than 13,500 have been hospitalized, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Fewer die from the flu in an average year. Additionally, a small number have developed a serious inflammatory condition linked to the coronavirus.

"Children aren't immune to getting sick," Nachman said. "And for every kid who has COVID is an adult who has COVID. We know the virus transmits well, and if a child has COVID in a household, chances are an adult has it, too."

Another important piece of evidence is how well the Pfizer shots revved up the kids’ immune systems. Researchers reported high levels of virus-fighting antibodies, somewhat higher than were seen in studies of young adults.

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"I'm pleased to see this, but I'm not that surprised," said Dr. Lorry Rubin, director of pediatric infectious diseases at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park. "The immune system of 12- to 15-year-olds are very, very robust."

Kids had side effects similar to young adults, the company said. The main side effects are pain, fever, chills and fatigue, particularly after the second dose. The study will continue to track participants for two years for more information about long-term protection and safety.

Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, in the coming weeks plan to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European regulators to allow emergency use of the shots starting at age 12.

"We share the urgency to expand the use of our vaccine," Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement. He expressed "the hope of starting to vaccinate this age group before the start of the next school year" in the United States.

Pfizer isn’t the only company seeking to lower the age limit for its vaccine. Results also are expected soon from a U.S. study of Moderna’s vaccine in 12- to 17-year-olds. In a sign that the findings were promising, the FDA already has allowed both companies to begin U.S. studies in children 11 and younger, working their way to as young as 6-month-old.

One key question is the dosage: Pfizer gave the 12-and-older participants the same dose adults receive, while testing different doses in younger children.

It's not clear how quickly the FDA would act on Pfizer's request to allow vaccination starting at age 12. Another question is when the country would have enough supply of shots — and people to get them into adolescents' arms — to let kids start getting in line.

Supplies are set to steadily increase over the spring and summer, as states are opening vaccinations to younger, healthier adults who until now haven't had a turn.

Nachman expects some parents to be wary of vaccinating their children, but said many more families will vaccinate their kids.

"There are a huge group of people who will want their kids vaccinated because they saw first-hand what COVID did to their family," Nachman said.

Rubin said children aren't immune to getting sick from COVID-19, which is why it's "perfectly reasonable" to vaccinate a child.

"Even if their risk of severe COVID-related illness is low, a small number of children do get sick," Rubin said. "It's like riding a bike with a helmet. Will you probably be all right if you don't put on the helmet? Yes, but better to decrease risk."

With AP

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