Should we vaccinate children against Covid-19? The question is going to be increasingly asked following positive results from a US trial of the Pfizer vaccine in 12 to 15-year-olds. The trial found the vaccine to have a 100 per cent efficacy in preventing symptomatic illness — higher than on older age groups. It was, however, based on a relatively small number of participants. The trial included 2,260 children, half of whom were given the vaccine and half of whom were given a placebo. Among the control group, 18 went on to develop Covid, compared with none in the group given the vaccine. The company announced yesterday that the vaccine had been ‘well tolerated’ among the group. Pfizer has yet to announce the results of trials in three further age groups: five to 11 year olds, two to five year olds and babies aged six months to two years. We have also yet to hear from AstraZeneca trials involving 300 six to 17 year olds, announced in February.
The government currently has a policy of inoculating only the over-18s, although it was reported in the Daily Telegraph last week that ministers have been considering plans to extend vaccination to schoolchildren from August onwards. However, a change of policy would require some explanation given the comments of the former head of the vaccines taskforce, who told the Financial Times last October: 'People keep talking about "time to vaccinate the whole population", but that is misguided,' she said. 'There’s going to be no vaccination of people under 18. It’s an adult-only vaccine, for people over 50, focusing on health workers and care home workers and the vulnerable.'
There is the issue of to what extent children act as vectors of the disease. In January, a study by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control concluded that schools had not been an important factor in the resurgence of the virus last autumn — and that people returning from holidays and travel in August had been a far bigger factor. The absence of a significant upswing in cases following the return of schools in England on 8 March would appear to confirm that finding.
The idea of vaccinating children is hardly a huge step into the unknown, given that children are currently administered with all manner of other vaccines from very young ages. If the vaccine is safe, why not use it to protect children from the very small risk of severe disease? That is not to say, though, that the reopening of society should be held back until everyone, children included, has been offered the vaccine.